WHAT IT’S ABOUT: In Mexico City, home to almost 9 million people, there are less than 45 EMT cars operated by the government. If an official one doesn’t arrive at the scene of the accident in 40 minutes, the injured are up for grabs for private ambulances, such as the one that the Ochoa family runs. Fernando or Fer is the patriarch of the family that speeds through the streets after dusk, a man constantly fatigued by the grind and the responsibility. He is joined, among others, by his sons: adorable tween Josue, who prefers riding in the ambulance to attending school, and the 17-year-old Juan, who calls the shots and disciplines both his younger brother and his father. As if the usual EMT work wasn’t challenging enough, the Ochoas have to navigate patients who refuse to pay the transportation fees and the police officers demanding bribes at every corner. When the operation stops meeting the bottom line, the family has to make hard decisions that can threaten the wellbeing of those they transport.
WHO MADE IT: American Luke Lorentzen is a young filmmaker, but he has already established himself as an incomparable voice when it comes to covering very particular subcultures in an incisive yet intimate way. He has worked with Colombian fishermen for his short documentary “Santa Cruz del Islote,” observed folks in New York City’s barbershops for his previous feature documentary “New York Cuts” and directs and produces a Netflix series “Last Chance U,” about junior college football. He chanced upon the Ochoa family parked on the sidewalk while staying with a friend in Mexico City, and then followed the ambulance for three years until he had a story ready. Lorentzen directed and filmed the documentary on his own, edited it along with Paloma López, and produced it along with independent producer Kellen Quinn, as well as the female power-duo behind Mexican production company No Ficción, that specializes in documentaries about social issues: Daniela Alatorre and Elena Fortes.
The Ochoas are a real family of EMTs operating out of Mexico City. In addition to Fernando, Juan, and Josue Ochoa, the team also includes Fernando Ochoa Acosta and Manuel Hernandez. I wasn’t able to figure out if they’re part of the family, close relatives, or merely hired work, but their presence allows to widen the angle of looking at the ambulance work from just the triangle of the Ochoas. The ambulance crew reportedly enjoyed collaborating with Lorentzen because it seemed cool to have an American tagging along with them, although Lorentzen himself attributes their openness to the family’s generosity.
WHY DO WE CARE: It’s only in 2020 that president Lopez Obrador introduced public healthcare in Mexico, to replace a system where public health coverage was possible for some, but local governments severely mismanaged the funds for it. And just like in the USA, the majority of the population in Mexico either went uninsured or struggled to navigate the tangled systems. At this point, it’s impossible, especially for someone not out of Mexico, to say how the new system will affect the Ochoa family business. But the failures of the previous healthcare system are reflected in the way their enterprise operates in the film. Watching the ambulance crew have to make decisions that effectively counter-balance the patients’ life and death with the EMT’s livelihood is a surreal experience, made especially poignant by how endearing the family is, and how much they rely on the system fraught with corruption and greed to survive. Even though it was filmed away from the battles surrounding Medicare for All, “Midnight Family” is an incredibly powerful portrayal of what exactly is wrong with having profit incentives mixed in with healthcare—a universal, timeless truth with global implications.
WHY YOU NEED TO WATCH: The film’s warm, old-fashioned premise of a family working together to lift themselves out of hardship would make an excellent documentary on its own. But the brilliance of “Midnight Family” lies in the fact that it lets the ugly underbelly of capitalism show through. The ambulance rushes down the roads of Mexico City, as the Ochoas have to navigate an elaborate setup of bribing cops, getting to a victim in a specific timeframe, choosing the right hospital to take them to, and just ensuring that no one dies before they can pay. Watching them, the viewer can see how powerless human nature is within a system thoroughly rigged for gain. As the film commences, the viewer is told about the situation with 45 government ambulances in Mexico City. There is no additional explanation to follow, but as the film unwraps, the tragedy that engulfs the EMT workers, their patients, and those who miss the opportunity for care stands out as clear as day even to someone foreign to Mexico and its welfare networks. And although the Ochoas indeed make for an exceptional cast of characters, and the massive tragedy of commercialized healthcare is a commendable co-star, Lorentzen also subtly establishes himself as a remarkable new talent in documentary filmmaking. He approaches his subjects with care, yet never steps away from his relentless questioning of the ambiguities that they inhabit. As a top-notch filmmaker, he would probably find a story amid the mundane anyway, but “Midnight Family” is an absolute win, with its heart-stopping suspense, robust humanity, and vast real-life implications.
Midnight Family, 2019
Director: Luke Lorentzen
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