Universal healthcare in Mexico is in crisis. According to Luke Lorentzen’s documentary Midnight Family, there are only 45 government ambulances serving Mexico City’s population of 9 million. Fortunately, in one respect, private ambulances, like the one driven by the Ochoa family, race to the scenes of accidents and crimes in just a few minutes once an emergency call goes out, while one of the few government ambulances might take more than half an hour, if one arrives at all. One substantial downside, of course, is that, while government transportation is free to patients, private ambulances must charge in order to remain solvent, to continue to do the good work of getting people the emergency care they need. The price for this is generally less than $200.
The Ochoas, the affable and indomitable subjects of Lorentzen’s film, take their work very seriously. Not just because it pays the bills (often it doesn’t), but because they seem to have a genuine sense of responsibility to their fellow citizens. One wonders what they’d do, if they weren’t in this business—or what the youngest of them, 17-year-old Juan, his sister, and their little brother Josué, could do if they had the opportunity, and inclination, to commit themselves to school. So far as we can tell from the numerous tense and intimate sessions recorded in the film, a sincere sense of caring drives the family, a desire to provide injured people immediate relief—whether through an IV or a hug—and to help them make the best choices about where to get more extensive care. Their efforts become even more complicated when they have to guide a victim of a car crash through a quick decision about which hospital will provide the best pediatric care for her injured son, and whether they should go to a public hospital (which might be too busy to admit new patients) or a private one (which may be expensive).
Throughout, the Ochoas stay mostly calm, presenting options as coolly as the situation allows, even when it comes time to request payment, which frequently surprises the injured or their family. If they have to pack up empty-handed, the Ochoas remain humble, understanding that in most cases, their patients simply have nothing or too little to give. The job is the important thing. It must be done. But it is, nevertheless, a job, and the ambulance requires gas, or maintenance, or special license plates, and more, just to stay on the road. Like many of their patients, the Ochoas struggle to pay for food and the basic necessities of life, such as water and heat in their home, and school fees for their sister and Josué, who—taking little interest in studying—often accompanies the crew throughout the night, bouncing around in the back of the ambulance on their wild, gladiatorial rides through Mexico’s City’s legendary gridlock.
Midnight Family is a deeply engaging, often exciting, documentary, mostly due to the close relationship Lorentzen developed with the Ochoa family over three years of filming. They are completely unguarded around him, and the viewer must appreciate the balletic quality of Lorentzen’s camerawork (and editing) as he, in tandem with the family, navigates tight spaces and difficult interactions with police and patients. But Midnight Family is also quite bleak, a troubling observation of a system overwhelmed by a lack of resources, and a portrait of millions of lives, including those of the most civic-minded caregivers, perched just over the edge of a steep decline into economic disaster and life-altering physical peril. And yet, the commitment to service documented here, the dedication to community, a renegade caring, might still provide a glimmer of hope.
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