One of the most emotional scenes in the Netflix documentary series “Lenox Hill” occurs in an episode that wasn’t originally included in the show.
The medical team being followed by the filmmakers goes out onto a deserted street on Manhattan’s Upper East Side during the coronavirus pandemic and lockdown, and the scene resembles the set of a disaster movie. That’s what makes the yearning of the people in it for closeness, for a word of comfort, so moving.
“If we could, we would hug each other and hold hands – which I promise we will do again,” says hospital executive director Jill Kalman, trying to boost the exhausted workers’ morale during a remembrance for those whose lives were lost.
The COVID-19 episode was conceived and shot this past April, months after work on the series was finished. Clearly, though, “Lenox Hill” – which was already a profound, poignant and engrossing series that debuted on Netflix with incredible timing, concurrent with the outbreak of the pandemic – would not be complete without such an episode, which focuses on the hospital amid the new reality brought on by the virus.
Because of what happened after the show was completed, say its Israeli creators Ruthie Shatz and Adi Barash, they knew they had to return to the hospital corridors and the medical personnel they had documented in their regular, pre-coronavirus routines.
“We finished the show in the fall and submitted it to Netflix in February, and we never imagined what was about to happen,” Shatz says. “Yes, the coronavirus was in China already and reports were starting to appear in Europe. But we didn’t know what was about to hit us.
“A few weeks later, it was clear it was here in the U.S., too,” she adds. “Our doctors are right in the heart of it, and we had to see what was happening with them in this moment. The first scene in this new episode is actually the first time the hospital staff gathers to talk about the virus. And from that moment on, for the next two months, Adi was in and out of the hospital filming.”
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That scene outside during the act of remembrance is so affecting because your camera captures that moment in time when our human existence and our codes of behavior are changing, perhaps forever.
Barash: “We knew it was a point in history, and that it’s global and has implications for who we are as humankind and where we are going, and what we’re doing in order to deal with a whole range of issues.
“It’s a formative event and the doctors in the hospital – like at every hospital in the world – were pondering the question of how, as a doctor, you approach this thing,” he says. “The first week or two when they didn’t know how to function ... nothing makes a doctor feel more helpless than not knowing what to do.”
A complex picture
Barash and Shatz, who are life partners, have had several opportunities over the last decade to learn about and delve into the lives of doctors and medical crew members. In 2013, Israel’s Yes Docu channel aired their series “Ichilov,” created years after Shatz had spent a long spell at the Tel Aviv hospital with a risky pregnancy while carrying their first son. Shatz’s mother was in the hospital’s oncology unit at the same time.
Earlier, the two made a documentary called “Diamonds and Rust” (2000), describing the lives of a crew working for De Beers on a diamond-dredging boat off Namibia. “Garden” (2003) dealt with Palestinian sex workers in a Tel Aviv park. Another was “The Collaborator and his Family” (2011), about a Palestinian collaborator and his family living under harsh conditions near Tel Aviv’s old central bus station.
“Ichilov” enjoyed two successful seasons. Following these came 2018’s “Ambulance,” which followed Magen David Adom paramedics as they went about their work. The filmmakers were already living in New York at the time, where they’d moved with their three sons to begin work on “Lenox Hill.”
It was here they transferred the experience they’d accumulated in Israel to the American arena. In both places, they chose to follow physicians in different areas and with different and diverse backgrounds, using them to tell a larger story. However, the American story is totally different to the Israeli one, with or without the coronavirus.
The hospital they chose was a sleepy institution that reinvented itself in recent years thanks to one of Barash and Shatz’s protagonists: a neurosurgeon who wanted to set up a new department that would attract patients and their insurance companies. Other protagonists represent a complex social picture, such as a Black obstetrician and Latina physician in the emergency ward. There are also a host of patients, from the homeless to the well-off, people who can afford expensive insurance and people whom the system does not know how to contend with.
“We looked for a place that would be representative of the widest possible variety of elements for a series dealing with a hospital,” Shatz explains. “We wanted to touch on the issue of race, showing cultural and racial diversity. We also wanted an opportunity to deal with social gaps and the issue of health insurance in the United States – namely with poverty and race. The emergency ward is in a different area than the rest of the hospital, located in downtown Manhattan, and it contains everything and everyone, from the homeless and upward.
“We also wanted to touch upon nonmedical topics, wide-ranging and universal ones, and this could only be done through the right casting,” Shatz adds. “Choosing Lenox Hill allowed us to document the growth and development of the place, along with the conflict between the administrative and medical sides of the hospital: a conflict between bureaucracy and medical care. We knew this would provide good dramatic tension for the series. We knew what story we wanted to tell and which social messages were important to us – as documentary makers, but also as parents and human beings.”
Barash says they looked for protagonists who wouldn’t be afraid of saying what they thought – “Things that wouldn’t necessarily be politically correct” – and people who would “give diverse viewpoints through a powerful exposure of their fragility and what they believe in. The doctors at Lenox showed the attempts to improve the system and straighten out its kinks where possible, in order to provide patients with what they needed. No one comes through the door without being helped. They’ll always try and find a solution, sometimes pro bono. Through their eyes, one can see that the U.S. health system is in big trouble.”
Shatz: “The system is managed by insurance companies. They determine who gets what treatment and by which doctor, which pharmacy gives which medication – it’s absurd that people have to find their way in this labyrinth, which is devoid of any humane or social consideration. It’s a purely capitalistic economic system. That was one of the most difficult things we discovered about America. If your insurance is inadequate, you’re in a tough spot. Medicine should be a basic right, just like water. A person shouldn’t have to beg in order to receive medical care.”
Back to the coronavirus special episode, which manages to capture not only events connected to the epidemic but also what followed.
Barash, wearing protective equipment from head to toe, goes in alone with his camera, capturing more than the fatigue and overload under which the system is laboring. The Black Lives Matter protests – which erupted at the end of May, in tandem with the pandemic – powerfully impacted Manhattan and the hospital. In a way, it serves as a metaphor for the way in which historical events are replacing each other at a murderous rate.
Shatz and Barash say they just trained their camera on what was happening, only stopping to think about what had transpired later.
“Each of these things doesn’t exist without the other,” Shatz says. “The United States is at a historic boiling point. If it weren’t for what was happening with Donald Trump, you couldn’t reach such extremism and the revulsion felt by people.
“The time under lockdown gave people some free time to look around and create such a movement,” she says. “The intensity of this drift is so large that it impacts on everyone. Without the pandemic, it would never have reached such intensity. But here you had two historic events, alternating with each other from one moment to the next.”
Schatz says they saw the coronavirus episode as being almost like a poem, not just about “a global, historical event, but a raw emotional expression of what we went through, as people who live in this city and who experienced the city this way, while documenting medical teams. The city and all of its residents went through something very powerful, and we experienced this profoundly. Adi saw doctors and patients, and I sat and edited the material every day.
“There was a lot of power in this creative work,” she continues. “We worked on the series for two years and edited it from our souls. But for us, this episode’s events are ongoing and we have no perspective on it yet. It’s happening now and it’s not going anywhere. Even if our next projects are not connected to health, this situation is not going anywhere and will impact everything – from the sense of isolation to our children’s education.”