Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Tue Mar 19, 2019 12:45 pm 
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Breaking the rules to help people in Mexico City

Partly inspired, Lorentzen says by Harvard’s Sensory Ethnography Lab (Sweetgrass, Foreign Parts, Leviathan, Manakamana), this documentary is an observational and humanistic up close and personal glimpse at people coping with a health care system far worse than that of the US. The place is Mexico City. The population is nine-million-plus. To serve them the city provides only forty-five ambulances. Private, for profit seat-of-the-pants ambulance services now work competitively to try to fill the gap. Director Luke Lorentzen discovered documentary gold by following one of these. Midnight Family is the prizewinning result.

Lorentzen moved to Mexico City after college with an idea for a film and shifted to this one when he met the Ochoas and they let him ride with them for one night. He spent nearly eighty days filming from two in the afternoon to six or eight in the morning embedded night after night in the private ambulance run by the Ochoa family. He speaks Spanish and worked as a one-man crew using two two Sony FS cameras, one mounted on the roof focusing on the crew in the front window, the other hand held by himself. He shot over a three year period, out with them for a hundred days, though he says that seventy percent of the best material came in the last few days of the shooting.

Lorentzen respects the patients' privacy, but hangs closely with the Ochoas, gaining their confidence for intimate moments. Little, chubby Josoé is lazy and makes excuses not to go to school. Juan is only seventeen, but he drives the vehicle and in all ways is the grownup (though he sleeps in the vehicle curled up with a big fluffy doll). Fer, their father, has a heart condition and sometimes cannot cope. Along with them is Manuel Hernández. There are long waits with nothing happening. There are frantic races to accident sites, speeding through the night streets and crazy Mexico City traffic not only to save the injured but also to beat other private ambulances to the job and the money. But there is not always money even when they get the job. Sometimes their clients are too poor to pay, or just refuse to, and they wind up with an evening's work and no profits, only losses. It's hard at times to see how the Ochoas can even do this job, or afford the equipment. And then there are the cops, who harass them and demand constant bribes, and paperwork, "protocols," a joke since it's all outside the law.

But for Juan, who's muscular and sharp but still wears braces on his teeth, and who enjoys playing to the camera and mouths off with a warm sense of humor, this work is the pleasure of doing good and helping people but also the adrenaline rush of the excitement and struggle to succeed.

This is a human document, but like other good observational films, also a visual treat. Lorenten makes excellent use of the striking night light of the city, the neon glare, the blur, the flashing signals that can make what be drab in daytime into magic. When Midnight Family is operating full-tilt, it's intoxicating to the senses, with the blur and rush of the vehicle, the scream of sirens, and Fer's amplified voice as he uses a loudspeaker to urge people to get out of the way so the ambulance can push through. This is where the Sony cameras pay off with their exceptional capacity to capture in low light. Everything comes together for the filmmaker when he gets dramatic (and beautiful) coverage when the Ochoas rush a girl with a traumatic brain injury and her mother to a private hospital knowing every minute counts to save her, and he captures Juan pacing around and talking to his girlfriend Jessica on the phone later about how this turned out.

The film, which Lorentzen edited as well as shot as a one-man crew, ends beautifully with Fer and Juan picking up Josoé at the schoolyard in the afternoon, then heading out together in the ambulance into the maelstrom of Mexico City traffic at twilight, with the cars' taillights just beginning to glow.

At an appearance in the Guadalajara Festival, Lorentzen said he wanted to show how a good family is forced eventually into corrupt practices because of a broken system and "the corruption is gradually playing with the lives of people, and the Ochoa family is hostage to the police and the health system." But it's a fun watch too - as Lorry Kikta of Film Threat says, "a very exciting, sad, yet extremely funny film."

Midnight Family, 91 mins., debuted at Sundance Jan. 2019 where it won the documentary Special Jury Award for Cinematography. Four other festivals, including the 2019 MoMA-Film Society of Lincoln Center New Directors/New Films series, where it was screened for this review. Many reviews: Metacritic (Metascore 85%), including Nich Schager for Variety. See also a Mexican article about this film.

ND/NF Showtimes: April 4, 8:30 PM; April 5, 9:00 PM
New York Premiere · Q&As with Luke Lorentzen on April 4 & 5



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