Theater of Cruelty

Race for the accidents

Midnight Family
Regissør: Luke Lorentzen
(Mexico, USA)

PATIENT HUNTING / The intense and upbeat documentary Midnight Family follows a family-owned ambulance in Mexico City, and their extreme dilemmas between life-saving and earnings.


Mexico City has 9 million residents, but fewer than 45 state emergency ambulances, we know from a text poster early in the film Midnight Family. In comparison, the ambulance department in Oslo and Akershus is "set up with 45 emergency ambulances during the day and 29 emergency ambulances at night", according to the Oslo University Hospital's website.

Car chase to the accident sites

In the Mexican capital, this has created a market for private ambulances operating in a legal and often also moral gray zone, with the goal of making money from the apparent lack of public services. American Luke Lorentzen's documentary follows one of these emergency ambulances, run by the Ochoa family, with father, two sons and a friend of the family in the car. They may not have the most up-to-date equipment or expertise, but by listening to police radio, they often manage to reach the scene of the accident before the state emergency crews. At times after the purest car chases in competition with other ambulances to do the potentially life-saving work – and hopefully also be able to collect wages for it.

The film provides some disturbing perspectives on privatization in the health sector.

The youngest son, who is of school age, keeps up with the mostly nightly calls – while in practice, big brother Juan (17) seems to be managing the cowboy-like family business. Juan admits that he likes the adrenaline kicks he gets from work, but in several scenes we see him as fully treating patients with a striking maturity. In other words, this team does not necessarily do a bad job.

But the challenges are many, and sometimes important decisions can be influenced by financial self-interest. Should they, for example, drive the injured person to the nearest state hospital, or to a private a little further away – where there is a greater chance that they can get paid for the service? Here, too, the quality and capacity of the various hospitals are included in the assessment, but the opportunity to make money is obviously a significant factor for the family, who are struggling to make ends meet.

On several occasions, we nevertheless see them end up without any wages for their efforts, for example when the patients do not have the proper health insurance. Leaving people with serious injuries does not seem to be an option, but in particular a tearing sequence gives the impression that a less self-selecting choice of hospital could have produced a far happier outcome.

Bribes to the police

Director Lorentzen, who is also the film's photographer, editor and one of the producers, has followed the family for 3 years and filmed them for just over 80 nights during this time. His observational approach means that we do not always get the full and complete picture of the many dilemmas the ambulance team faces, but in return, the film comes very close to the family – both at intense moments where life is at stake, and during breaks while waiting for the next emergency. Impressively enough, Lorentzen has also been filmed while the father in the family negotiates with the police about bribes, which seem to be a prerequisite for the business.

With its close presence in the many dramatic recesses Midnight Family a documentary thriller. But it is also a warm portrait of the Ochoa family – without blindly defending all their choices and actions. The director has also wisely chosen not to film too much of the injured, but instead directed the camera at the ambulance team and any relatives in the car. In this way, he avoids becoming too "glaring" spectators to these accidents, while at the same time the result is at least as nerve-wracking and intense.

Midnight Family
Midnight Family
Director Luke Lorentzen

More than just highlighting the obvious shortcomings of Mexico City's welfare system, the film provides some disturbing perspectives on privatization in the health sector, which we see here as an extreme variant. Admittedly, with some much smaller companies than the health care companies operating in our part of the world, the desire to make money is just as much the same. And that is, as the film shows, not always as compatible with the services that must be performed.


The Midnight Family was recently shown below Bergen International Film Festival and can be viewed Movies from the South in Oslo in November. Even I watched it Message to Man in St. Petersburg, which is one of Russia's oldest and most famous film festivals, when I sat in the international film critic jury there in September. In the jury we chose to give our award to another film with a similar title, namely Midnight Traveler (which was also shown in Bergen). In this documentary, filmmaker Hassan Fazili portrays his family's journey as refugees from Afghanistan to Europe, including dangerous, illegal smuggling routes and long, exhausting periods in refugee camps – but also with touches of both humor and poetry. The content of this extremely strong film spans almost three years and is filmed in its entirety with three mobile cameras.

However, Luke Lorentzen's film was also among those featured in the St. Petersburg competition program. It was also awarded with a total of three awards, including the very best: The International Grand Jury Award for Best Film (The Golden Centaur Grand Prix). In Bergen, too, Midnight Family got away with a prize, as the best film in the "Documentaire Extraordinaire" program – and it won't surprise me if it wins the best documentary award at this year's Movies from the South festival.

Aleksander Huser
Aleksander Huser
Huser is a regular film critic in Ny Tid.

You may also like