By Michael Sandlin.

From a strictly academic point of view, 26-year-old boy wonder documentarian Luke Lorentzen’s Midnight Family affecting ticks all the boxes of a classic “observational” mode of nonfiction film. No soundtrack, no incidental music, no voiceover — just simple unobtrusive camera work and a sharp eye for detail. It’s hard to imagine a more appropriate way to document the rogue emergency services adventures of the Ochoa family, who make the most precarious of livings running a private paramedic and ambulance service on the mean streets of Mexico City. Lorentzen deposits us smack dab into a real-life libertarian nightmare inflicted on a city of nine million people who are served by a measly 45 government-run ambulances — said shortage of emergency vehicles opening up a hard-won market opportunity for this tough, enterprising inner-city family: there’s Fern and his sons, 17-year-old Juan, and 9-year-old brother Josué. They all seem to spend most of their waking (and some sleeping) moments in the ambulance either responding to an urgent call or waiting for the next one.

In Lorentzen’s capable hands, the observational mode here is not without its adrenalized dramatic touches — kind of like marrying the austere style of Frederick Wiseman with an episode of COPS (without the moralizing authoritarian overtones). With much of the footage being shot from a camera mounted on the hood of the Ochoa’s van, we’re dragged along on each demoralizing ride this rogue ambulance service embarks upon: many of their emergency calls end up costing them precious petrol and medical supplies, with the added uncertainty of whether or not the victims they help will be able to pay them anything (most are, predictably, broke). In short, the Ochoa’s desperate livelihood is dependent on charity, either from those unfortunates they treat or from payouts from the private hospitals they rush their most serious cases to. And three or four nights without a paying gig could mean no food on the table. Along the way there are some real-life dystopian scenes from this bizarre hand-to-mouth existence: not the least of which are the scenes of the Ochoas literally drag-racing their ambulance against government ambulances to see who gets to the scene of the next blood-soaked accident first.

But this insane 24/7 dog-eat-dog existence is made even more complicated by the fact that the Mexico City police are openly corrupt and hostile toward guerilla operations like the Ochoas’ run. Sometimes the police can be bribed in exchange for getting the skinny on where all the bloodiest accident action is happening around the city. But mostly the local fuzz just shake down the family for money and threaten to impound their ambulance for any minor infraction: so, if the Ochoas do make any money on a given night, much of it goes to paying cops off. Then they split what little is left among themselves to grab a quick snack and recharge themselves for another stressful plunge into the dark heart of the night.

Midnight Family captures all too well the grim realities of desperate but determined people forced to operate on the margins of society with no bargaining power and no occupational safety net. Sadly, we begin to see the cracks in the family’s altruistic veneer beginning to show as the film progresses into its latter half. It teaches a hard lesson concerning how a society in thrall to extremist disaster capitalism can eventually demoralize even the most gentle, well-meaning souls. Lorentzen’s genius is how he manages to achieve what is, on the surface, a reliable fly-on-the-wall objectivity toward the Ochoa family but also simultaneously undermine the squeaky-clean image the family tries hard to retain during the filming. This unexpected ambivalence complicates what could have easily been a simplistic portrait. No doubt the Ochoas’ contributions to emergency services are very much needed in their community; but we also see the corrosive amorality and mercenary callousness that is naturally tied in with their job.

As the film progresses Lorentzen slips in some subtle but revealing scenes that show the moral flaws in the Ochoas’ business model — which proves to be equal parts samaritanism and shysterism. And as money becomes tighter their business decisions get increasingly dodgy, even to the point of, in one instance, actually endangering the lives of those they’re supposed to be helping. In the end, you just end up feeling pity for both the Ochoas and the unfortunates they encounter on a nightly basis: they’re all caught in a Mad Max-worthy system that’s only egalitarian in the sense that it corrupts everything and everyone in its ambit.

Michael Sandlin‘s work has appeared in Cineaste, Senses of Cinema, Film Quarterly, Bookforum, Los Angeles Review of Books, and the cinema trade publication Video Librarian.

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