Director: Luke Lorentzen
Section: U.S. Documentary Competition
In the 80-minute documentary, Midnight Family, director Luke Lorentzen’s elastic camerawork helps us ride with five male members of the Ochoa family in Mexico City. They traverse the night streets in search of live-action tragedies. They chase pain and tears. They raise the fallen. They are the face of the void that separates life from death.
The Ochoas are one of several local families that run a private, for-profit ambulance service in the city of 8 million people. Thanks to a limp healthcare infrastructure that affords no more than 45 general ambulances, they occupy a ruthless ecosystem. At times, it’s difficult to distinguish the sinkers from the saviours in the Ochoa van; they might be aiding the injured, but it’s really the injured in more of a position to aid them. Making ends meet by preventing strangers from meeting their end becomes an uphill struggle.
Midnight Family is the unflinching snapshot of a culture that turns heroism into a desperate freelance job. At different points in the film, the blood-stained ambulance assumes the roles of a mobile home (naps on a stretcher), a playground (the youngest has footballs and chips lying around), a school (the child watches, often in shock, as life-and-death stories unravel before him), a source of entertainment (a teen-aged Ochoa delivers action-packed narrations about their adventures to his girlfriend every night), a hospital (they bring babies and bruised hearts back to life)…everything but an office. The transactions in there are too one-sided for that. You sense their conflict when they find themselves in situations where they aren’t quite sure if the moment is “right” to monetize their priceless services. They don’t know what to say when a girl with a broken nose, shaken and sobbing, asks for a hug in between heartbreaking “Is this expensive?” queries. They can’t cite their price list before helping a man shot in his leg. They can’t force a broke junkie to guarantee their payment before resuscitating his unconscious infant. They certainly cannot extort money from the panicked mother of a grievously wounded girl. At best they hope for a decent insurance coverage, more for themselves than the patients. As a result, the nation’s socio-economic fabric is directly woven into the film’s most desperate moments. “She sounds fancy,” one of them remarks, after phoning the parent of a victim, in effect raising hopes of a rare payday.
Despite partaking in a cut-throat system that dehumanizes the concept of caretaking, what makes this particular family a representative picture of their profession is their inherent humanity. It turns them into reluctant do-gooders who end up giving more than they are given. Yet, some of the saddest images in a film dealing in the business of sadness involve the family of five trying to stay afloat on the quieter nights. It’s the calm between the storms that sees them sway between harmless banter and frustrated sermons. From borrowing cash for gas, having to bribe corrupt cops and rationing their on-duty meals (an event that sees the chubbiest Ochoa turn vocal), their grim financial state keeps them from growing a full conscience. Each time the transmitter crackles to life, their reaction is telling; the glint in their eyes makes them the scrappy, real-life inhabitants of the “Nightcrawler” universe. Every mishap is an opportunity. The stringers in them come alive, and one can only wonder how far they are pushed before they go Lou Bloom on the system.
As they weave through traffic, it becomes clear that they aren’t rushing to an accident site as much as they are to the scene of their latest meal ticket. Rival ambulances are raced and pipped to the finish line with the zeal of competing salesmen clambering to win over a foreign tourist. And then we hear it. The siren, which is nothing less than a signature superhero theme for the routine onlooker, sounds like a cry for help from those within the speeding van. Only, it originates from the living just as much as the dying.