As the film opens, we meet the Reality Poets - black and brown men in wheelchairs through reasons we will come to discover as the film unfolds. They met in Coler - a New York City run nursing home on a tiny island just off the coast of Manhattan. And as most of the residents are old, these younger men start hanging out and free styling for fun. One of the poets, director Jay Molina, connects with film director and activist Alexis Neophytides, and he starts to document his friends' lives on film.
Then the pandemic hits. Not only are the friends locked up in the home, they can't even meet with each other if they are in different wards. The nurses look panicked, they don't have enough PPE, and isolation protocols aren't being followed. Things get out of control when Di Blasio and Cuomo start shifting patients out of hospital into Coler, which has now been retrofitted into a hospital. It's a story we know in the UK too - vulnerable nursing home patients with comorbidities left as sitting ducks when hospital patients move in without proper testing first. One of the poets describe his words as ripping through like fire through dry grass. Sadly this is also a metaphor for how covid ripped through those wards.
The anger and frustration increases as the lockdown extends from weeks to months. The poets and their fellow residents suffer from a lack of even basic healthcare, their lives at risk, and some of them die. And they die in far greater numbers than the politicians will admit to. As if the physical risk wasn't enough, their mental health deteriorates as isolation takes its toll.
The Reality Poets and other residents start to agitate, getting their experiences into the outside world and - in the wake of the murder of George Floyd - starting a protest movement on both sides of the fence. But still the authorities - whether the hospital managers or politicians - refuse to believe them. It's the final insult at the end of the film when we learn that neither Cuomo nor di Blasio deigned to be interviewed for the film, and many hospital staff refused to be interviewed for fear of retaliation.
It blows my mind how many nursing homes this basic story must have been true for. And how, according to the one nurse brave enough to be interviewed, this wasn't just about the pandemic: basic health services were not being provided even before that. It's with grim inevitability that we learn that people of colour are less likely to receive the care they are entitled to, and that more died faster in the pandemic. These things don't happen in a vacuum. They speak to societal prejudice against the differently able and ethnic minorities. God forbid you are both at once.
Social care is going to become one of the defining issues of this decade. That alone makes this film urgent and important. But watch it to be inspired by these brave film-makers and to see the first draft of history taken from the frontlines of the pandemic.
FIRE THROUGH DRY GRASS has a running time of 89 minutes. It goes on release in the USA on September 29th and will play the BFI London Film Festival 2023 where tickets are still available for both screenings.