‘Fire Through Dry Grass’ Team on Making a COVID Doc Inside a Nursing Home: “We Were Fighting for Our Lives”

The horrors and resilience of people during the biggest global pandemic since the height of HIV in the ’80s and ’90s has been captured again and again by documentaries over the last several years.

Inside looks at the country’s emergency rooms as they raced to save lives have been cast against theaters trying to weather human and artistic loss as they faced unprecedented challenges amid governmental shutdowns. But not many documentaries have seen artists take viewers inside one of the hardest hit — and frequently forgotten — communities during the height of COVID-19: nursing homes and long-term care facilities.

Enter the filmmaking team of Fire Through Dry Grass. Andres “Jay” Molina and Alexis Neophytides followed several residents of the 815-bed chronic care facility NYC Health + Hospitals/Coler — formerly known as Coler-Goldwater Specialty Hospital and Nursing Facility — as they challenged administration along with local and state officials’ policy in an effort to stop the endangerment of residents at the care facility on New York City’s Roosevelt Island.

The group at the heart of the doc belong to Reality Poets, a collective of gun violence survivors turned artists, poets and musicians who reside at Coler’s nursing home, and who worked in conjunction with filmmakers and artists to chronicle their months-long lockdown. The film follows their life during the COVID wave that plagued New York City following former Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s decision to allow COVID-positive patients to return to or be admitted alongside previously unexposed residents at care facilities across the state.

Refusing to be left out of sight and out of mind, this group of Black and brown artists worked to hold their institution — and home — accountable for what was going on inside its walls. This effort soon led to a movement complete with news stories on the struggles of nursing staff, petitions, protests supported by other Roosevelt Island residents and eventually their regained right to access life outside of the facility.

Molina, Neophytides, producers and residents spoke to The Hollywood Reporter about how Fire Through Dry Grass captured the pandemic experience from inside Coler’s halls, the life and death stakes of their disability advocacy and why the documentary space needs more brown and Black disabled filmmakers.

Can you talk about your decision to film your experiences inside Coler, and how you got involved in filmmaking in general?

ANDRES “JAY” MOLINA I taught myself how to use Premiere Pro and After Effects, so I’ve been making short films for a while. The pandemic hits — it was chaos — and it happened to be that they put a patient in my room in the bed right next to me who had COVID. I have underlying conditions, so to me, if I had gotten COVID, I would probably be dead. So I called administration, and I told them about it. They said they were going to do something, but they didn’t do nothing. They left the patient right there. I called Jenny Lee Brewster, who was the director of [disabled artist collective] Open Doors at that time, and I told her about the situation. She was feeling for me, the fact that we were there locked up and had COVID all around us. She told me, “Jay you are filmmakers, so let’s make a movie about this.”

I’d been working with [Alexis Neophytides] for a few years already, and I got a Saving the City grant from the Mayor’s Office here in New York, to work with a professional to teach me about filmmaking. We were working together for a while, so it was a no-brainer to invite her to co-direct this film with me. When we presented the project to her, and I told her everything that happened to me — what was going on not just with me but with us — she decided that she wanted to join in.

Can you talk about the feedback you got from the facility at the time? The doc doesn’t really get a lot of official statements but you do chronicle your efforts to hold them accountable along the way.

PETER YEARWOOD Feedback back from the facility, it was like this: We are now fighting for our lives. What can you do to us now that that’s really gonna matter? I believe that’s where we got the courage from to just go ahead and do what we had to do, film what we had to film, get information from wherever we had to get it from. That was the least thing on our mind: fear of retaliation. At first, it was there, and then it just didn’t matter anymore because we were fighting for our lives now. So there’s nothing you could do to me now that’s really going to matter.

JENNILIE BREWSTER Someone on Coler’s [Rehabilitation and Nursing Care Center] staff — I guess the head of inpatient relations — told me that they weren’t allowed to film because of HIPAA. I said, “HIPAA doesn’t apply to them. They’re residents.” So we really did ask some folks and find out what their legal rights were. But there was some pushback. I mean, they flat-out lied, said they can’t do it, and then when I called them on it, they backed down. There was some other pushback about some social media that we were doing that administration told us to stop.

Vincent, the doc details your journey with hospital and political officials about addressing the issues at the residency. Did you believe when you were having those discussions that the city and these officials genuinely wanted to help, or did you feel like those meetings were little more than PR?

VINCENT PIERCE The first meeting I really had was with the H&H CEO, Dr. Katz, and at first I did feel like he wanted to help. In the film, I said that yeah, he was cool. But I realized, he was just trying to protect H&H, trying to protect [former CEO] Robert Hughes. He was doing what he was told. No matter what, he’s going to protect his $300,000 a year and not worry about people’s lives. So yeah, I did believe, but realized that when it comes to sitting down with administration and sitting down with Dr. Katz, they talked a good talk, but really were trying to get me to stop. As for other government officials, the [then] Manhattan Borough president Gale Brewer helped out a lot. She really supported us, really got on camera, on the news and supported us.

Had any of you run into advocacy issues, in terms of getting what you needed, prior to the pandemic?

PIERCE Yes, definitely. There were issues going on before the pandemic. Voices definitely were not being heard. Before the pandemic, even the new CEO brought that up and said, “Yeah, we know that there were issues that the pandemic just brought out.” Even at the beginning of the pandemic, our voices were not being heard by us being on platforms and speaking up until some travel nurses went to the [New York] Post, and were saying some of the same things we were saying. Now we have everyone wanting to listen or pretend like they want to listen.

YEARWOOD Call it luck, if you will, but we had a lot of good friends, a lot of good allies, especially in the community at large — the Roosevelt Island community — who helped us out tremendously by getting the local politicians involved in this. I think that’s when they started paying attention, when our politicians or local electeds started voicing for us. It was mentioned before, the borough president, there were council members, even had Congresswoman [Carolyn B.] Maloney at one time. That’s when they started paying attention. Before — like Ben said — we were something on the back burner they weren’t really concerned about.

This is all happening on an island historically known for isolating people from everyone else — hospitals for the poor and infected with smallpox, a workhouse and prison, an overcrowded asylum. These were also people who frequently didn’t have agency over themselves or protected rights. In the doc, you address having someone else isolate you and control your contact to the outside world. How much did that directly exacerbate the experiences you had?

MOLINA They first used to tell us that they are doing that to protect us, but they don’t really know the damage that they were doing to us — not being able to see our families or our friends. One thing they used to say to us that we used to hate was that, “it’s bad out there. You don’t want to be out there.” Yeah, but you can be out there. You have that choice. We don’t have that choice. You’re basically violating our human rights. Then they will just say that they’re protecting us. In the Town Hall meeting, the CEO back then, Mr. Hughes, was asked that question about isolation, about us going out. One thing he said that really pissed me off was, “We are asking them not to go outside, and they are complying.” Bullshit.

They were forcing us to stay here. They were telling us that if any one of us steps one foot out of the facility, we will automatically go to a fifth floor of isolation for 14 days. They would put us in a unit with other people that had COVID. That’s the way they were protecting us, supposedly. Basically taking our freedom away and putting us with people that will actually give us the virus even if we didn’t have it.

YEARWOOD This island does have a history of it being a dumping ground, if you will, for the city’s undesirables. And yeah, there were times when I used to think that. That we were in the way and we weren’t really wanted on this island. But boy were we so wrong. Especially the way this community came out to support us. It’s something that I’ll never forget. I used to read about it in newspapers. There were news clippings on how a community would step up in times of crisis, but I’d never really experienced it.

The way they didn’t just show up, but put up. They showed up for us like we were family. As far as the isolation, I think Jay touched on this one time when he said, “because we’re here, we’re isolated from the rest of New York City. So they think that they can do just what the hell they want to do, and nobody’s got to know anything.” But I think that a lot of the success we’ve had so far, I would just thank the community for that. Because they just amplify their voices through the whole process of the lockdown.

You were filming this basically over a two-year span. Can you talk about the shared filming process we see in the doc and how you determined which moments mattered?

MOLINA We had three GoPros. I would always have one on my chair. Then periodically, I would put one on Pete’s chair, Vince’s chair or [LeVar “Var” Lawrence’s] chair. Sometimes I went to their rooms while they were in bed and I’d film from there with their permission.

ALEXIS NEOPHYTIDES I was filming the outside stuff. Open Doors started recording the preliminary meetings to keep a record of what was going on before we started the film, which I think was about a month into the pandemic. Var had actually filmed some stuff himself on his phone also, because he was so enraged at what was going on. He was texting people what was happening. Some of those small first videos — the one that’s orange and grainy, where his roommate is coughing in the back and you can’t really see anything — he moves his wheelchair with a stylus on his phone, and he was recording. That was actually, if not the first thing, one of the first things that was was filmed.

Jay and I had a huge G-drive, we’d upload footage and then review what there was. We made shot lists of what he could film in the inside with the GoPro. In terms of putting together the beats of the story, everyone was living it as we were filming, so the story was unfolding. Every time we thought we had a section of what the film was going to be, something else huge would happen. There was a second wave, and continuously still locked down inside. So I think it became clear when they were finally allowed out that that was an ending to the film and that we could frame it in that way — the year of lockdown.

Part of this film is about profiling the life of adults in this care facility, as residents, people with disabilities and artists. How did you want to approach those profiles, which are somewhat distinct through things like animation from the larger story happening around you?

MOLINA I became a motion graphics artist and I know how to use After Effects, which you can do a lot of animation with. At the beginning, me and Alexi were debating whether to have me do some type of work in the film. I also do a lot of greenscreen and Alexi told me, “Jay that’s not how traditional documentary is made — not with greenscreens.” So then we landed on animation. We were able to find a real fantastic animator in Argentina. He did some work on our series, so we contacted him and worked like three years with him. He did all this great animation and we ended up using it in the profiles. We are the Reality Poets, and I wanted this animation to be part of us. So what better than our background stories?

BREWSTER It was also really important to you because we initially thought we were gonna do a short, and Jay really felt from the beginning it needed to be a feature because you wanted the audience to have time to get to know people.

MOLINA We had so much footage that I started thinking, we could put all this together and have an hour. We need a feature, so we spoke about it and agreed to make a feature.

NEOPHYTIDES Jay wanted to make a film about the Reality Poets, highlighting their work and who these amazing people were, before the pandemic, so some of those early interviews are in the film. Then the pandemic happened, and we didn’t want to erase that idea. The new idea then became how to merge that and share the poet’s work in the midst of this pandemic, and how they were now using their art for activism. They were already close, but [we wanted to explore] how that brought them together even closer into a community and a brotherhood.

It was always to center the Reality Poets, their artwork and their stories. And they had already done some previous telling of their own stories on a podcast that they had put together, so we farmed a lot of that stuff. Then we did some retakes and things. Jay’s story was newly recorded for this, but some of some Var’s and Vince’s were from previous podcasts that they had already done and were things that they wanted to share about their life in in that work.

YEARWOOD It was really easy because that’s what we do anyway. That’s what Open Doors is known for, the storytellers. Even before the pandemic, at the start of Open Doors, we did outreach across the city, spoke to different age groups of people. We told our story with the intent to deter young people from a life of a street violence. So I think that part of it came real natural for us to be able to tell our backstory.

These facilities can already be really isolating beyond any COVID policy, especially for younger long-term patients who they aren’t really built for. How did you think about portraying that isolation, the outside versus inside experience? Did you want one to feel harsher than the other, visually?

NEOPHYTIDES We thought about that a lot — how to present the inside versus the outside, and almost from the point of view of Jay and I as the two directors, one of us from inside and one of us from outside. We wanted it to highlight the claustrophobia and the horror that you were feeling through the Zoom box and through small claustrophobic shots from inside the nursing home and then come out into this expanse of glory on the island. To be able to go outside and hear the birds and sit under a tree or something and breathe some air that wasn’t the same recycled air that you were breathing was such a luxury that they weren’t afforded and it was right outside the gate. It was so fucked up. So we talked about that a lot in the edit, in the sound design, in the music. What kind of sounds we were going to use in the songs in the score.

Another thing I will add is that I actually grew up on Roosevelt Island. That’s how Jay and I were introduced to each other, and I loved it. In the film, when Pete is narrating you see some footage of late ’70s roller skating. That was when I was a baby. It’s really idyllic in my mind. For me, I wanted that to come through, this magic of the island, which I think a lot of the Roosevelt Island residents feel. It’s a really special place to live. I know that’s a real feeling amongst the Coler residents. Yeah, it is isolated, but it’s also an amazing place to go and live. You have freedom, you can go and sit by the water. The community is great. It’s beautiful.

YEARWOOD Jay and I, our units were the last ones to get locked down. We live on the same floor but on different sides. Three days after they locked our units down, I got sick because they had people that were positive and negative in the same space. I still haven’t had a response as to who was responsible for that? Who gave that order to lock everybody down in the same space? So I’m still trying to find out who did that. I have an idea of who might have done it, but I’m not sure. But yeah, we did feel safer outside than we did inside.

PIERCE They were also told to treat everyone as if they had it. Another point I wanted to bring up was with the people looking out the windows — that’s a sense of being incarcerated and wanting to get out. A lot of people can’t deal with that. That really messes a lot of people mentally.

MOLINA Outside is like a sanctuary for us. We have our area outside where we always hang out. We always talk, we basically just mill together about what happened to any of us the day before or what’s going to happen next. They took that away from us. So now we weren’t even meeting each other anymore. We were just calling each other. When they took that freedom from us, that basically broke our hearts.

Watching this, it becomes clear how significant your work is in capturing the inside of this issue, but it’s also rare to see so many Black and brown men with disabilities not only present on screen, but shaping the filmmaking. You obviously had a lot going on during this time, but was that something that had crossed your minds while working on this?

PIERCE Definitely. Definitely. Definitely. This is a majority, Black and brown nursing home, and it would have never happened if it was an all-white nursing home. Voices would have got heard. Like I said, our voices weren’t getting heard until travel nurses, who were white, spoke up to the Post.

BREWSTER The question, it’s reminding me of something that Jay has often said about it being really important to you to be recognized for your talents and skills, and feeling like living in this nursing home and being a person with disability that you’re not seeing people in front of or behind the camera a lot.

MOLINA Yes, that’s something that always intrigued me. The fact that we are disabled, Black and brown men or women, we are being treated as second class citizens. We are not given the same respect and opportunities as able-bodied people are. So I always felt that there should be more of us in film, in Hollywood. It should be more of us working, presenting ourselves as artists and as filmmakers, producers.

YEARWOOD The sad truth about that is that there hundreds of thousands of people with disabilities that are really talented. Hollywood just seems to throw them in the shadows. They even have the audacity to have a able-bodied person playing a disabled person onscreen. That’s something I think needs to change. I’ve often wondered, where are my doctors, scientists, musicians, actors with disabilities? Where are they at? I know that they’re out there because I’ve come in contact with many, many people with disabilities through Open Doors. Really smart people. People will real skills. Why are the being kept in the shadows. Are they scared of us?

The title’s multiple meanings — a pandemic raging through your under-resourced and under-supported community, and your fiery spirits that helped advocate for you and your fellow residents — are powerful. But was that the significance of the title? And was there ever a moment where you questioned whether you could press on?

PIERCE I felt like it was up to us to really drill into their heads, “What are you doing? This does not make any logical sense.” I think that the little bit of progress that we were getting gave us the motivation to keep going, and still gives us motivation.

YEARWOOD I don’t think giving up was an option for us. I think if we were still under lockdown, we’d still be filming. I think one of the things that gave us not so much the courage but the energy to keep going was because of all the support that we had. People were hearing our voices, so we can’t stop now. And I can tell you one thing — one person got it and it spread like wildfire to the whole facility. That is exactly what happened, so it was a no-brainer title for this film.

NEOPHYTIDES Sometimes it’s like the hardest thing to come up with the title and sometimes it’s the easiest. But I hadn’t thought about it the way that you said that. They’re burning the system down.

BREWSTER It was a working title that became the title and it’s what you nailed there — how it spreads through that facility, but also the determined activist spirit and how that then became the fire through dry grass that’s spreading. We’re seeing both the idea about the virus but also the Reality Poets’ determination, perseverance and advocacy.

Fire Through Dry Grass is streaming on POV/PBS through the end of January.

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