When in March 2020 the first wave swept across France, Mantes-la-Jolie University Hospital became a regional anti-Covid centre. A camera is exceptionally authorised to document this unprecedented period. In fixed shots, it captures the raw reality of the hospital in all its harshness but also in its beauty. A moving dive into the intimacy of the relationship between caregiver and patient, a poignant tribute to the professionals we all applauded, without really knowing what they were going through and what they are still going through: an endless story.
Nicole is one of the film's central characters. A nurse's aide for 35 years, working in the Covid1 department, she is close to the patients, giving them care, bringing them meals, washing them, even going to the mortuary. This strong and energetic woman cares with the tenderness of a mother and the energy of a young girl. Her humanity, her humour and her intelligence instil a formidable energy, even in the hardest moments. Nicole, an essential element on whom everyone in the COVID department relies, takes a fresh look at the current events, going so far as to underline the beneficial aspects of the epi-demia for the hospital world that has been in resistance for years. With her long experience, she deciphers with naturalness and sensitivity all the events that the patients, her colleagues, the hospital or the outside world are going through. She makes us laugh, a lot, and touches our hearts.
Barka, is the cleaning lady of the COVID service. For 22 years, this deeply generous and funny woman has been disinfecting rooms and corridors at dawn. Between two patients, between two transfers, between two deaths, she waves her mop to beat the invisible. Her husband, who has COVID, is in one of these rooms. A product of Moroccan immigration, living a few hundred metres from the hospital in the sensitive Val Fourré district, Barka represents the forgotten, the little people who are too often despised and whose role is no less essential. One morning she told me: "I've never been allowed to speak, I've only been allowed to keep quiet, now that someone wants to listen to me, I'm not going to deny myself". Moving from room to room, as attentive as a nurse, she offers us an unexpected presence and testimony, full of mischief, humour and intelligence about the hospital, humanity and the current epidemic.
Didier, is one of the two undertakers in the hospital, known as the "amphitheatre boys". This two-metre tall giant, often touching, sometimes clumsy and funny in spite of himself, divides his time between the hospital morgue and the public mortuary. For 36 years he has moved between cold doors and coffins with the disconcerting naturalness of those who live with death, of those who know that the dead have neither conscience nor feelings. His job is not well known and yet indispensable. He is a go-between, the last representative of the state between the institution and the families. If he is in contact with death every day, he has never experienced it as much as during this period, when the number of deaths in hospitals is in the hundreds. But Didier knows how to listen to it, how to look at it and he gives us a sometimes terrible but necessary reflection on the nature and face of death.
Dr Esther d’Estrées, 39, a palliative care doctor, is an end-of-life specialist at Mantes Hospital. Armed with her tenderness, her calm and her soft voice, she walks the corridors of the COVID wards to relieve pain, call the families of the most affected patients and often accompany them until the inevitable. She decided to specialise in this field after accompanying her father through a long degenerative disease until his death about ten years ago. She learned to live with it, to look it in the eye and to accept it in her own flesh. Her essential role as a companion to patients and families, the way she looks at the end of life and death, so omnipresent at that time, brings a necessary depth and humanity.
Mr. and Mrs. Duport have been married for 57 years and have lost their child. The two octogenarians no longer get along and ask to be placed in two separate rooms. Barka, Nicole and Dr. d'Estrées take turns at their bedside, performing their duties with infinite tenderness, washing the bodies, softening the souls that no longer know which saint to follow. When Mr Duport seems to be about to bow out, the medical staff tries a last conciliation and manages to convince Mrs Duport to come and say goodbye. A heartbreaking moment where everything is said in one look, the good, the bad, the forgiveness, a few days before Mrs Duport leaves the hospital, saved.
Mr. Lopez, is a hospital technician in a local hospital. He is a tattooed, strapping middle-aged man who is also a fan of Johnny. Tired after two weeks of excruciating mid-seasons, he regains some colour when the stretcher-bearer admits to being named after his idol. Mr Lopez even laughs and seems confident. But when he receives a call from his worried parents in his room, he stifles a sob to hide the fear and anxiety that grips him. Mr. Lopez is endearing and takes us from laughter to tears. He is irresistible when he comments with humour, under 15 litres of oxygen, on President Macron's speech, which he listens to live on his telephone. Mr Lopez will pull through. After 14 days in hospital, emaciated but relieved, he tells the staff that he is fine with them but that he can't wait to leave, and announces "the first thing I'm going to do is to grill myself a good merguez in a good baguette!
Mrs. Cambron is an elderly lady to whom the whole department has become attached. Dr. d'Estrées does his utmost to reassure her and ease her suffering. But this woman who is loved like a mother, a wife, without even having known her, will not survive. She will go away while Nicole, the nurse's aide, strokes her hair and reads her the letter sent by the love of her life. "Just these few words to tell you how much I love you and how much I miss you. We had a wonderful time of love and tenderness... We didn't have time to do everything we had planned and tell each other everything. But I hope you were happy during that time. You made me happy, and I won't forget any of those moments of happiness, your smile and your good mood. I let you rest and give you a thousand kisses. Your Jeannot who loves you forever, like crazy."
"Dr Billy, in charge of the COVID service, wanted to bring in "an eye" capable of immortalising what he and his teams were going through. An eye with enough distance on an exceptional emergency situation to grasp its depth, its memorial dimension, in a perspective that was, according to his will, more "artistic and historical" than mediatic. We shared a common aspiration. He thus exceptionally opened the doors of the hospital to me, until the end of the first wave. Time did the rest. By sharing the schedules, the emotions, the dress of the carers and the increased risk of contagion, I became, if not one of them, at least a privileged witness whose gaze everyone accepted. I then chose to put my camera down, literally. To make it a sort of black box, a space for recording the raw facts, but also for the staff and patients to speak and reflect. I wanted to hold up a mirror that would reflect, behind the doctor and the patient, the human being and history. To build with them a work that would allow us, later on, to better understand what we have gone through, what has gone through us."
Gaspard Thierry-Karoglan, 33, is a photographer, cinematographer and director.
He has a CAP in photography, a degree in history and sociology from the Sorbonne and a master's degree in journalism from the ICPJ Paris.
At the age of 21, he left for Iraq. He spent 18 months there as a photo reporter. He worked for two years at I-télé from 2013 to 2015, then became a freelancer. His work focuses on crisis situations, migration issues, Africa and the Middle East.