Courtesy of 1091 Media
In Luke Lorentzen’s new documentary “Midnight Family” - a film about a private ambulance service in Mexico City - we learn how the government only employs fewer than 45 ambulances in a city populated with 9 million. It’s not entirely shocking if you keep up on world news, but “Midnight Family” offers a stunning and invigorating look at how a gigantic city operates after dark. The film never loses sight of its main subjects, the Ochoa family, as they rush to make ends meet in a struggling economy.
The Ochoas live and work where everyone has to fend for themselves: they own and operate a private ambulance to try and help offset how slow the government is. Sometimes it can take hours for an ambulance to arrive at a scene and by then someone could be dead. The Ochoas ambulance is generally run by a father, Fer, whose on a health decline and generally seems depressed about the current state of his enterprise: dealing with finances and official regulations as well as fending off snobby cops who give him a hard time in hopes of nabbing a bribe. But it’s really a 17-year old Juan that takes care of the grunt work and even becomes a father-figure to his little brother Josue, who would rather help the family than attend school.
It’s a constant tug of war. The Ochoas hardly leave the ambulance (they seem to be sleeping in it more and more these days) in the hope of getting a call and being first on the scene (if a government regulated ambulance doesn't arrive within a certain time-frame, they get the bid). Often, the Ochoas’ patients never want to pay them for labor or assistance (one scene where a young girl is beaten by her boyfriend and Juan and Fer arrive to help, the first thing out of her mouth is a tearful: “Is this going to be expensive?” and almost refuses treatment). They also have to compete with other private ambulances, like a turf war, doing the same hustle in a city that literally never sleeps.
Lorentzen has a keen eye for staging intimate moments: including closeups of Fer as he’s clearly contemplating everything, and there’s the close quarter sequences with the patients, the police, and the citizens the Ochoas interact with on a daily basis. In a brief 82 minute window, “Midnight Family” covers a wide spectrum of eye-opening discoveries. The film moves from one intense shakedown to the next while also finding moments to stop and linger on the overcrowded highways, or the brothers figuring out how much Tuna they can purchase for dinner. There’s real promise and restraint shown her from Lorentzen - who also wrote, produced, and edited the film - as he doesn’t over indulge in the big and flashy moments and allows the more subtle nuances to linger.
There’s a stark commentary hidden in “Midnight Family” about the infrastructure of the medical system and the corrupt government as a whole. Which all but signals how urgent and timely “Midnight Family” is for its audiences. It’s a raw, strategically pieced together doc that has no score and instead allows sirens, engines roaring, car horns, and victims screaming in agony to fill the voids. Meanwhile, we just sit and watch, hoping that something, anything, can change the current circumstances.
It’s a documentary you won’t shake easily.