As governments around the world struggle to respond to the coronavirus pandemic, attentions turn to the healthcare systems on the front line. The effects of the virus on regions with weak public health services and endemic poverty rates have been inevitably catastrophic. The soaring death rates in countries like Brazil and Mexico have underlined the importance of universally accessible healthcare and further exposed the devastating impact of historically underfunded healthcare infrastructure. In Mexico City alone, 8,253 deaths have been reported, with the true figure likely to be much higher. In May, The New York Times found that the government had failed to report thousands of coronavirus related deaths in the city. Luke Lorentzen’s 2019 exploration of Mexico City’s private ambulances Midnight Family, serves as a timely reminder of the fragilities of the city’s health care system- fragilities that would come to characterise its response to the coronavirus.
Midnight Family opens with a sobering statistic, we learn that only 45 state ambulances service Mexico City’s 9 million citizens. In the absence of the state, private ambulances ferry the injured to hospitals for a fee. Director Luke Lorentzen follows one such team of paramedics, the Ochoa family, comprising; the patriarch Fer and his sons, Juan (16) and Josque (10). We follow the Ochoas across 85 nights spent racing to trauma led by tip offs from private insurance firms or police radio. In moments, Midnight Family appears as a heart pounding ride-along, whilst at others it seeks to interrogate the moral issues at play in the Ochoas work and the lives of a family struggling to overcome poverty.
Midnight Family’s journey into the private ambulance system makes for a strikingly visceral and chaotic viewing experience. Lorentzen’s observational style crafts an adrenaline-fuelled ride filled with countless scenes to rival those of a Hollywood car chase, only here the stakes are much higher. The film adopts a captivating rhythm of stillness punctuated by lurches into chaos, mirroring the erratic nature of the Ochoa’s work. Rare moments of relative quiet found in hospital admissions or in deserted streets are routinely interrupted by news of trauma unfolding across the city, heralded by a cracking police radio. Deafening sirens, and flashes of blue and red light follow as the Ochoas screech through the city racing competing ambulances to sites of violence, accidents and traffic collisions. In some of the film’s most compelling scenes they attend a victim of a gunshot wound and resuscitate an unconscious baby. Lorentzen meets these moments of acute crisis with compassion, choosing to focus on the faces of the emergency team rather than the injured.
For much of Midnight Family we are encouraged to view Mexico City’s healthcare crisis through a distinctly personal lens. The film’s dual focus on the Ochoas as both an emergency response team and a family unit enable Lorentzen to contextualise the effects of privatisation on an economically unequal society. We are witness to their struggle to survive, to meals foregone and nightshifts worked without payment. It is this awareness of the family’s financial situation that informs our perception of the various ethical issues at play in their work. The transactional quality of the care the Ochoas provide weighs heavily on many of the scenes in Midnight Family. Most memorably in the film’s climax, the Ochoas attempt to transport a woman who has fallen from the sixth floor of a building to hospital. Accompanied by her mother, she passes away during the journey. In the following scene we hear audio of Fer asking for payment, which is met by the mother’s claim that the family had transported her daughter not to the best or nearest hospital, but to one where they could expect a higher fee. In moments like these, our relationship to the Ochoas is tested and uneasiness creeps into our perception of their work. And yet Lorentzen resists absolute moral judgement and instead presents the family as imperfect actors operating within a broken system, where their moral choices are coloured by their own struggle to survive. In one scene, Juan tells Lorentzen ‘this city would be a mess without private ambulances’ and in some respects Midnight Family reinforces this statement as state ambulances are noticeably absent from every single incident the Ochoas attend. But importantly Lorentzen’s film also exposes the real potential for private ambulance services to exploit those who are in need, and it’s the coexistence of these two truths which makes Midnight Family’s depiction of private ambulances so compelling.
Watch the trailer here:
Where can you find it?
Midnight Family is available to rent or buy on various streaming platforms. Rent it on Google Play for 2.99, with Amazon Video for 3.49 or on Dogwoof’s platform for 3.50.