As the acute threat of Covid-19 has waned, it has become easy to forget the surreal devastation of the early days of the pandemic, and the fissures the period exposed in our society. “Fire Through Dry Grass,” directed by Alexis Neophytides and Andres Molina, highlights the plight of those most vulnerable to the coronavirus. Molina, known as Jay, is a resident of Coler Rehabilitation and Nursing Care Center, the facility on which the documentary is centered, located on Roosevelt Island.
Much of the film is made up of cellphone footage shot by Molina or other residents, the sometimes smudged screens adding a dreamlike element that captures the haziness of the early pandemic, when days seemed to blend. Poetry by residents punctuates the images, which also include news clips, Zoom meetings and animation (drawn by LeVar Lawrence, who also lives in the home).
The film is effective at highlighting the anger, fear and loneliness the patients felt as the pandemic dragged on, with conditions at the facility, already not ideal, taking a turn toward the deplorable: Long-term residents were housed alongside patients sick with Covid. Some developed bed sores from staff neglect, and lay for hours or days without being bathed or having their diapers changed. The film documents their fight for improved conditions and the right to leave the facility.
The combination of firsthand footage with poetry makes for an intimate and raw film that gives a real sense of the confinement faced by the residents, some of whom compared the experience to previous jail stints. It’s a powerful reminder of how defining and devastating the pandemic was, and gives space to those whose voices were long ignored.
Fire Through Dry Grass
Not rated. Running time: 1 hour 29 minutes. In theaters.