Healthcare worker on creating a harrowing documentary about life and death in a Covid ward

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Professor Leonie Scholtz says she knew she had a unique opportunity to show SA what was happening on the frontline. (PHOTO: Leonie Scholtz/ Legacy Hill)
Professor Leonie Scholtz says she knew she had a unique opportunity to show SA what was happening on the frontline. (PHOTO: Leonie Scholtz/ Legacy Hill)

She remembers all their faces: Patient Zero, the schoolteacher from Brits who was the hospital’s first Covid patient. The young woman who fought for her life, fear flooding her eyes. And the couples who arrived together and were intubated together. 

Pretoria-based radiologist Professor Leonie Scholtz is one of countless frontline healthcare workers who’ve been waging war on the pandemic since it arrived on our shores. She’s watched it change from the first wave, when mostly older people were affected, to ravaging younger people in the second and third waves, leaving death and devastation in its wake. 

And Leonie (64) felt something needed to be done to show just how serious it was.

“We’ve got records of all the world wars, the fighting in the trenches, the Holocaust – this virus was the new frontline. Who was going to record this? Who was going to show the public and the people who thought it was a hoax or ‘just bad flu’ that it was a major catastrophe? 

“Photographers weren’t allowed in hospitals anywhere, so that’s why I started doing what I did,” she says

And that was recording scenes deep down in the trenches. The result is Zero to Zero, a new documentary that gives harrowing insight into the effect of the pandemic from the perspective of healthcare workers, patients and their families at the Zuid-Afrikaans Hospital in Pretoria.

Professor Scholtz says making the documentary was
Professor Scholtz says making the documentary was a steep learning curve. (PHOTO: Mariëtte Crafford/ Legacy Hill)

Leonie, a keen part-time photographer, felt obliged to document the pandemic when it hit South Africa. 

Some news footage from overseas broadcasters showed clips of what Covid wards looked like. “But they were short and people’s faces were blurred,” she says. “They didn’t look like ‘real’ people. 

“The impact of this was so serious and I knew someone had to show it. 

“I wondered how people on the outside would know what healthcare workers and patients were experiencing. I thought I had the unprecedented opportunity to show people what was going on in the frontline.” 

'There’s one truth about the virus – it’s totally indiscriminate'

The management of the 100-year-old non-profit private hospital gave her permission to film and photograph her colleagues’ and patients’ day-to-day lives. 

“We actually didn’t know where all of this was going but just knew this had to be done and had to be seen. It was almost an urgency for me to salute the healthcare workers.”

Specialist physician Dr Yanila Nyasulu was a centr
Specialist physician Dr Yanila Nyasulu was a central figure in the documentary. (PHOTO: Leonie Scholtz/ Legacy Hill)
Dr Yanila Nyasulu is shown in the documentary havi
Dr Yanila Nyasulu is shown in the documentary having to intubate a seriously ill Covid patient. (PHOTO: Leonie Scholtz/ Legacy Hill)

Leonie's voice breaks as she recounts one of many overwhelming moments in the Covid ward. 

READ MORE | We wept over our baby's swollen body: parents' grief as 7-week-old dies of Covid

A young woman, who had no comorbidities, needed to be intubated as she could no longer breathe on her own. Leonie, aided by Shem Compion, a photographer, filmed the procedure with the patient’s consent. Christa Lategan later edited the footage. 

And when specialist physician Dr Yanila Nyasulu explained the patient’s condition, Leonie understood the fear and isolation the woman was experiencing. “She’s lying there, knowing, ‘I’m going to be unconscious, and I don’t know if I’m going to wake up.’ I remember I almost couldn’t see anything we were filming because I was crying so much.

“And when the doctor came out, we both just cried. We just thought, ‘How unfair that nobody knows what this girl is going through’.”

The patient survived, Leonie says, wiping away tears.

“The predominant tragedy was that patients were isolated. Their only contact with another person was with their healthcare workers, behind a mask and with gloves on. Isolation is a huge problem and a traumatic experience for most people.

“Even healthcare workers couldn’t hug each other, couldn’t even hand a cup of coffee to a colleague.”

Christa Lategan edited the doccie and Leonie says
Christa Lategan edited the doccie and Leonie says she captured the first, second and third wave beautifully. (PHOTO: Christa Lategan)

It took Leonie and her team 15 months to complete the documentary, which covers all three waves.

“We didn’t have a script. We knew we had to tell a truthful story and there’s one truth about the virus – it’s totally indiscriminate. People from all walks of life are affected and our aim was to show the impact on a variety of people”.

To capture moments of heartache and triumph required an element of risk.

“I went into the ICU with my camera, as difficult and risky as it was, and it was evident that the effect [of Covid] was enormous – we saw patients who’d undergone such severe changes it was almost unbelievable.” 

She credits her team for helping her capture the devastation of the pandemic. Christa captured the craziness of the first wave, the chaos of the second wave and the desperation of the third wave, all while still providing hope, she says. 

Co-photographer Shem Compion says this documentary
Co-photographer Shem Compion says this documentary is one of the most meaningful projects he has ever worked on. (PHOTO: Leonie Scholtz/ Legacy Hill)

The professor qualified as a medical doctor in 1980 but she’s loved the arts and cinematography since her mom introduced her to museums and theatres as a child.

READ MORE | I have the best job in the country: Professor Glenda Gray on the big vaccine rollout

Leonie has won several prizes for photography, including a runner-up award in the South African Medical Association photography competition in 2012, as well as an international award, the Global Arctic Awards, in 2013. 

“I’m passionate about photography, which came into very good use for this documentary,” she says.

'I thought I had the unprecedented opportunity to show people what was going on in the frontline'

She was, however, a beginner in the field of video photography and this documentary was her first major commercial production. Getting to grips with new equipment was a sharp learning curve, she says. 

“When it comes to filming, the principles are the same more or less regarding the lighting and stuff,” she explains.  “However, there’s a total difference as well. For instance, with still photography there’s one angle, but with video there are always a lot of angles. I learnt a lot about angles.”

The process of making the documentary has been the realisation of a dream as Leonie has always been interested in filmmaking. 

She hopes the documentary will accomplish three things: show people the pandemic is serious, honour healthcare workers and show the world what they’re enduring, and show what patients and their families have gone through.

Leonie behind the camera filming Dr Yanila.
Leonie behind the camera filming Dr Yanila. (PHOTO: Shem Compion/ Legacy Hill)

“It’s a celebration of the healthcare workers and their bravery,” Leonie says. 

“I hope this film also encourages people to get vaccinated,” she adds. “That’s the one thing we’ve hopefully contributed to. Once enough people are vaccinated, the burden on our ICU staff will disappear.”

The title Zero to Zero refers to the first patient admitted to the hospital and the staff’s hopes of ending up with zero hospitalised Covid patients.

“We thought we could start with the first patient who was admitted, which we did, and then at that stage we thought we were going to see an end to the pandemic and have a last patient after the first wave. That never happened. But we thought, ‘Let’s leave it open as a wish for us to reach the final zero patient’.”

She refers to a remark Shem made on a social media account and echoes the sentiment, “You know, it sounds corny, but I think this documentary is probably the most meaningful thing I’ve done in my career.”

Zero to Zero is on M-Net City (DStv channel 115) on 11 October at 20:50, 12 October at 22:50, 13 October at 12:25 and 16 October at 22:25; and on M-Net Movies 4 (DStv channel 108) on 11 October at 19:20, 16 October at 14:35, 20 October at 12:25, 24 October at 13:50 and 28 October at 12:55.


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