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Polls have indicated that health care is the #1 issue on voters’ minds in the United States. While most first-world countries enjoy the benefits of a single-payer system, the U.S., Mexico and others lag far behind in providing this basic human right. Where government fails, private interests tend to creep in, and provide essential services to sick and injured people while siphoning their pocketbooks. The new pulse-pounding documentary Midnight Family personifies this struggle. Viewers are taken on an 81-minute ride-along with the Ochoa family in their for-profit ambulance, as it ricochets through the streets of Mexico City, chasing after the latest emergency in hopes of scoring a payout from the unlucky victims and the private hospitals they are ushered to.
26 year-old director Luke Lorentzen embeds himself with the Ochoas, getting close enough to the action without compromising the safety of the victims. One wonders what the optics of a Nightcrawler-esque camera-crew tailing these first responders looks like to the bystanders on the scene. A well-placed dash-cam aimed into the front seat captures the heads of the family; the cunning 16 year-old Juan and his weathered father Fernando (Fer), who share the driving and siren duties. Through the megaphone Fer announces, “Get out of the way! We could be saving your family!” In one climactic scene they are joined on the dash-cam by a horrified mother who’s daughter is being transported in the back after falling out a 4-story window. Her facial expressions are haunting, and in this moment the film transcends from intense to gut wrenching.
The youngest Ochoa is 9 year-old Josue, who merrily tags along, occupying his own cubby in the ambulance. He adds some much needed humor, while also instigating our parental worry that a young child would be desensitized by all this, or worse—traumatized. More likely the former, as little Josue seems more concerned with the family’s finances than his own mental health, whereas his father Fer is seen visibly shaking after particularly tough rescues. Lorentzen’s film is more than a character study of the Ochoa clan, it also tackles the moral ambiguity of for-profit healthcare. Though lovely and caring people, the Ochoas are desperate for dinero, and they consistently persuade patients to agree to be transported to a private hospital (that pays the Ochoas a cut) instead of a public one that may be closer. This well-rehearsed and manipulative behavior is part of a system of injustices that cannot be fixed without major reform. Juan is just playing the game to put tuna fish on the family’s table, even if that means using innocent victims’ lives as pawns.
Lorentzen allows the moral ambiguity to grow over the course of the film, ingratiating us with the Ochoas while gradually peeling back their layers. Combining edge-of-your seat thrills with intimate family moments, the doc coalesces to devastating effect. Doubly impressive is that Lorentzen pulled this off as a one-man crew, shooting and editing it by himself. His fly-on-the-gurney style gives us access to the troubling world of emergency care operating on the streets of Mexico City. It’s not hard to imagine something similar happening in the poorest cities of America—it probably already is.
– Matthew Delman (@ItsTheRealDel)
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