On February 7th, HBO premieres ‘Vitals’, a portrait of intimate stories from the heart of one of Barcelona’s hospitals. Shot during the toughest moments of the COVID-19 pandemic, ‘Vitals’ explores the physical and emotional challenges facing patients and frontline healthcare workers. Director, Fèlix Colomer, tells us about his experience at the helm of this El Terrat (The Mediapro Studio) production.
It was mid-March; we were in full lockdown mode and the ICU’s were packed to overflow when a friend of mine who’s a doctor calls me insisting: “You have to make a documentary of what’s happening inside the hospitals.” I tell him that I’d love to but that it looked impossible given how tightly sealed off hospitals were and that they certainly wouldn’t allow a camera, journalists, etc. in there.
Despite the drawbacks, I gave it a shot and contacted my local hospital here in the city of Sabadell (Barcelona), the Taulí Hospital, and bingo! A young and highly driven guy by the name of Aleix, who was just as motivated as I was, threw open the doors of the hospital to me.
It was a tough challenge and from the get-go, I had to explain to the 4,000 hospital staff who this guy was travelling up and down the corridors of each floor with his camera. Little by little, people start getting to know me and I begin to grow very close to many of them.
I spent the entire first day on the 9th floor, one of the only areas housing COVID patients at that time and by the end of the day, I turn to two of the nursing assistants that I’ve fallen in love with, Sandra and Noe and suggest that, from now on, I’ll follow them around as they go through their day to day, both in the hospital and at home. They accept and allow me to record them having dinner with their kids, to let us put a microphone on them while they’re in the hospital and to be right there next to them during some incredibly beautiful moments, (and yes, there were some) as well as during the toughest of times.
And following the same procedure, slowly but surely, we begin taking on more and more fellow travelers / protagonists to the voyage. It was a little different in the case of the patients. I’d enter their rooms without the camera, wearing the same PPE the healthcare workers were wearing. I introduce myself and explain that I’m making a documentary and would love for them to participate in it. They all agree; this story must be told. Then I talk to the families, whom I also want to record. They all accept and that allows us to follow the story from both sides.
From this point onwards, I experience a range of emotions, from sadness, to anger, to joy, to nerves, etc. In just two months I meet so many people who are experiencing such an extreme situation, and that gets me thinking about just how fragile everything actually is. Living in close proximity to the hospital itself was vital, given that I was working a 10-hour schedule each day on lockdown there. Of course, I’d take a break to go home where I disinfect myself, grab something to eat while talking to my partner and take a short nap before quickly returning to the Taulí.
One of the most frustrating days for me was the day one of the main patients/ protagonists dies. It was an emotional shock, since I had seen him arrive that first day he was in the hospital and he was doing well, he was strong, had a good appetite, etc. Little by little, he began fading until he was completely done. I had some doubts, but then it becomes clear to me: this death also has to be part of the documentary. COVID kills and there’s no need to hide from that or to look for euphemisms. The family shares my point of view more than anyone, as they’re more than aware of the importance and value that their father’s/grandfather’s testimony.
As we add more and more people from different areas (ICU patients, a trainee MIR doctor, an operating room nurse who is now in the ICU, etc.), there comes a point where I cannot cover everything, so we bring a second camera operator on board, and between the two of us, we divide up our time with the patients and healthcare workers. In addition, we also have a sound engineer, who helps us improve the sound quality. It’s also at this point that the production company El Terrat joins the project to give it a greater impact and share in the co-production with Forest Film Studio. At the same time, the editor with whom I always work in tandem is editing all the footage we’re shooting, and this enables us to edit a teaser, which we begin doing the rounds of the streaming platforms with until one day we get some big news: HBO wants ‘Vitals’. Professionally, this is one of the most memorable days of my life. Despite having received many proposals with COVID as the common thread, ours is like none other, they say. They value two key points: the unique accessibility to the frontline where the events are taking place and the fact of filming everything in the present tense (in other words, the project didn’t draw on other easier resources such as interviews or voice-overs, but we actually experience the joys and anguishes of the protagonists at the same time they do.)
Personally, I’m delighted because the end result has shown me that, if you have the will and motivation, grab your camera and put the hours in, the results will eventually come.
But above all I am happy because the stories of so many invisible people during the pandemic will be made known and will serve as a loudspeaker for all those who remain invisible.