Midnight Family starts with a bang, though visually you wouldn’t know it, as it’s presented as a simple white text on a black background. It’s the simple, unadorned but utterly horrific statement that Mexico City has 45 official ambulances to serve a city of 9 million people. Think about it: that is one ambulance per 200’000 individuals. This figure frames everything that follows, it provides an explanation and context, and it tells the audience from the beginning what we’re in for: a visit to a world that has gone deeply, badly wrong.
Luke Lorentzen’s film follows four members of the Ochoa family on their mostly nocturnal drives around Mexico City. They are the crew of one of the many private ambulances, hoping for accidents and other emergencies where they can snatch one or two people in order to take them to one of the nearby hospitals. They hope that those people, or family members of theirs, will be able to pay them a fee, because that’s how they make a living. If one of their fares dies or if they or their family cannot afford to pay, the Ochoas don’t get anything either. The system is cutthroat – we see several instances of the Ochoas literally pushing the pedal to the metal in order to outrace other ambulances so they can lay the first claim to a passenger -, it is inefficient and should send even devout proponents of free markets reeling. The system, and the situation it creates, seems to be right out of a reactionary dystopia.
If one didn’t know that Midnight Family was a documentary, it would be easy to miss that key fact, as the film looks more cinematic than many an indie movie. I don’t know how it was shot, but much of the cinematography suggests that Lorentzen installed various hi-def cameras in and around the ambulance, providing a number of different angles of the ambulance’s front seats, the back area where the stretchers are kept and the suprising number of nooks and crannies inside the ambulance, which among other things provide a cubbyhole where the youngest member of the Ochoa family, a boy of perhaps twelve years who prefers riding along in the ambulance to going to school, can catch an hour of sleep. There is the occasional handheld or exterior shot that clearly required a cinematographer (in this case also the director) being there, but for the most part we get shots of the protagonists, the members of the Ochoa family in the ambulance and their various passengers, or the packed nighttime roads they’re hurtling down on their way either to an emergency or to a nearby hospital. The footage resulting from this approach has an immediacy and a filmic quality that makes it easy to mistake Midnight Family for a feature film, in particular since the filmmaker’s presence almost never makes itself known. There is barely a moment in the film where we become aware of Lorentzen being in the same space as the Ochoas, and the family themselves definitely never show any such awareness. To all extents and purposes, the camera is as invisible as it is in a film such as Martin Scorsese’s Bringing Out the Dead, which Midnight Family sometimes resembles to a disconcerting degree.
The effect isn’t that the film tries to hide its documentariness, it’s that it simply isn’t that kind of documentary: the kind whose purpose is to educate its audience. There are no interview passages where the Ochoas talk about their work, background or situation. We learn about their precarious economic status because we see them arguing about how little money they have to buy food and how to spend what they have most efficiently (they finally go for Ritz crackers, canned tuna and sweetcorn). We understand that they’re constantly under threat of police harassment because we see them interacting with police officers and talking afterwards about the bribes they have to pay that further cut into their funds, but without those bribes they wouldn’t be permitted to do their job. I would have liked to have a bit more context and information on the Ochoas and their work: how regulated is the private ambulance business? Do they have any medical training? What did they do beforehand? If running a private ambulance is as likely to lose them money as it is to make a living, as so many of their fares seem just as broke as they are, why do they do it? In order for Midnight Family to provide this kind of context, though, it would have had to be an entirely different film. Much like the filmmaker, we are there to bear witness, to get an impression of the lives the Ochoa family leads and the world they inhabit, and that impression is primarily an experiential one. We are there to hear the squabbles between the family members, we see them cleaning away the blood on the ambulance floor after they’ve delivered yet another victim of a car crash, shooting or instance of domestic violence. We watch them interact with the people they pick up, showing warmth, compassion, even a surprising level of professionalism, yet also frustration when yet another fare turns out to be broke and the only available family member refuses to pay anything.
The Ochoas and others like them try to make a meagre living making up for the failures of a state that cannot, or chooses not to, afford the basic necessities. There is no one that is better off under this kind of system, yet those in as precarious a situation as the Ochoa family cannot afford to pass up the opportunity to make some money off those most in need of help. If the Ochoas don’t fill the vast gap created by all but inexistent governmental medical care, someone else will, and without the many private ambulances the sick and wounded have even less of a chance. The people caught in this system suffer and, sometimes needlessly, they die (the last fare in the film, a young woman who has fallen from the fourth floor, does not make it), but the Ochoas are in no place to change anything about it. In effect, Midnight Family suggests that everyone we see, the ambulance drivers as much as the families, is essentially a victim of this widespread failure of government. We watch the father of the family taking pills and checking his blood sugar levels whenever he remembers, and we take notice of his shaking hands and haunted gaze and wonder how much sleep he gets, whether he eats enough, and how long it’ll be before he’ll be in the back of the Ochoas’ ambulance as they try to get him to a hospital before his heart gives out. We watch as the 17-year-old son, whose job is usually to drive the ambulance, chews out his younger brother for not going to school, yet his youth and his own opportunities dwindle as he’s trying to be both a substitute father to the kid and a boyfriend as well as an ambulance driver. Midnight Family could perhaps be more informative in depicting the workings of a system where the effects of unfettered capitalism and incompetent government have metastasized, but it would risk losing the effectiveness it gains from its immediacy. I may have thought that the film should come with additional materials to help the audience fill in the blanks, but as it is, Midnight Family constitutes a vivid, haunting document of a mad, broken world and of the people trying to do their part to keep it together, with gauze, bandages and an aging red van.