Midnight Family


On the mean streets of Mexico City.

(2019) Documentary (1091Juan Ochoa, Fer Ochoa, Josue Ochoa, Manuel Ochoa. Directed by Luke Lorentzen

 

Mexico City is one of the most crowded metropolises in the world. With nine million inhabitants spread out over 573 square miles, it is the most populated city in North America. Serving those inhabitants are just 45 ambulances provided by the government; filling the gaps are private ambulance services that are largely unregulated.

One of these private services is run by the Ochoa family. Patriarch Fernando (or Fer, as he is better known) is compassionate and suffering from type 2 diabetes himself. He is slow-moving which frustrates his son Juan to no end; in a cutthroat business like the one they’re in, speed is everything. A matter of seconds can be the difference between grabbing a paying customer and losing everything they have. As a result, the weight of the world often seems to land on Fer’s shoulders.

The family mainly works nights with 16-year-old Juan generally driving the rig. He also tends to be the one who has the uncomfortable job of discussing payment with their patients who often have no insurance and can’t afford to pay them. Sometimes, the family doesn’t get any income whatsoever for days. Young Josue, a chunky young kid who looks to be on the cusp of middle school (his age is never discussed), doesn’t seem to go to school, or at least often finds excuses why he shouldn’t. Juan chides him and lays down the law with his little brother; if he doesn’t go to school, he doesn’t get to ride in the ambulance.

There is marked corruption. The family pays out a healthy percentage of their income in bribes to cops who tell them about accidents and other incidents where their services could be needed, like the first call in the film which is to a gas station where a young woman has been assaulted by her boyfriend and her nose broken.

There is an unmistakable correlation to our own health care system; in many ways the Mexican system is what our own is developing into. Patients are given the choices of going to overcrowded public hospitals (where they don’t have to pay but often have to wait hours before being seen), private hospitals (less crowded but often substandard facilities) and deluxe private hospitals (generally with all the most modern equipment but expensive). This is what “the best healthcare you can afford” looks like.

Lorentzen employs a cinema verité style; other than a title graphic at the very beginning explaining the lack of public ambulance services, the story unfolds as the camera catches it. There is no music, no talking head interviews, no cute animations; the viewer is left to interpret the story for themselves but Lorentzen clearly has faith that the story speaks for itself.

We don’t get much insight into what the family does when they aren’t working. We see Juan primping before heading off to work. We also see Juan talking to his girlfriend, recounting the events of the day. At one point we see Juan and Fer picking up Josue from school and we get a glimpse of a cluttered apartment, but no real sense of how they live day to day; for them, as far as the film is concerned, work is life. That makes it more difficult for us to relate to them.

What we do get are beautifully filmed scenes of the city late at night, lit by garish greens, blues and yellows. There is an almost impersonal feel to the look of the film, emphasizing how uncaring life in the big city is. There is an emptiness and disquiet as we often go from deserted streets in the middle of the night to crowded streets where Fer cajoles taxis to move out of the way via loudspeaker; “We could be helping someone in your family.” Puling over for emergency vehicles is apparently not a thing in Mexico City.

This is not for the squeamish as we see Juan and Fer cleaning the blood out of the rig after a run more than once, plus hearing the screams of the suffering. The movie recently appeared on the shortlist for the upcoming Oscar Best Documentary Feature award and may well sneak in to the final list of five. The movie doesn’t hit you like a thunderbolt, but it does work on you insidiously, slowly getting under your skin. You do end up caring for the Ochoa family and feeling outrage that a system like that could exist. The chilling part is that we’re not so far away from it ourselves.

REASONS TO SEE: Well-crafted cinema verité.
REASONS TO AVOID: Is a little disjointed at times.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity and disturbing images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film debuted at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/17/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews: Metacritic: 84/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Bringing Out the Dead
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
In the Tall Grass