Although it didn’t make the cut as an Academy Award nominee earlier this week, the documentary feature Midnight Family did make the 15-title Oscar shortlist, and for very good reason. The film is a scathing look at the deplorable shape of the emergency healthcare system in Mexico City, where only a few dozen government-sanctioned ambulances exist to service a population of roughly nine million. As a result, an unexpected business opportunity has arisen for private, self-taught ambulance operators. They function in a very grey area of the law that makes them both many citizens’ only hope of making it alive to a hospital and a target for local police to shake down for bribes in exchange for not arresting them for operating without all the proper protocols.
Directed by Luke Lorentzen, Midnight Family centers on the Ochoa family, led by father Fernando, who works alongside his two sons and a family friend. Since they work outside the law, they simply intercept emergency calls and are frequently in a race with other private ambulance providers to get to the scene of some horrible trauma first. And quite often, the police are there to shake them down in some way. The ambulance is usually driven by 17-year-old son Juan, whose driving skills are undeniable as he weaves between cars that don’t seem to move for any emergency vehicle and around competing ambulances like he’s racing NASCAR.
The most heartbreaking portions of Midnight Family come when Fernando must go to a family already grieving or in shock and ask for payment. The Ochoa family seem to be living day to day, rarely having enough money for food, gas or to restock their medical supplies. And many times, the family of someone they have brought to a hospital can’t pay anyway, causing the Ochoas to lose money that they aren’t even legally owed. And even when they do get paid, once they resupply their vehicle, pay off bribes, and put some aside to get a proper license to do their work, they end up broke again. They work ridiculous hours to make ends meet, which means they eat and sleep in the ambulance most nights, including the youngest brother, who should be in school and doesn’t seem to care that he isn’t going.
It’s easy to wonder why this family would want to be a part of such an iffy and not especially lucrative business, but when you watch them, especially Fernando, work with patients, you see that they actually have the talent and necessary compassion to do the job, as well as pride in the services they provide. If someone can’t pay, they don’t give up right away, but they aren’t cruel in their approach to attempting to get some funds from their desperate customers. The film is loaded with the type of constant tension you might expect from a business that revolves around human suffering—and sometimes life and death. Midnight Family is a deeply affecting character study and a moving family drama.
The film screens at the Gene Siskel Film Center as part of its “Stranger Than Fiction” documentary series, on Friday, Jan. 17 at 8:15pm; Tuesday, Jan. 21 at 8:15pm; Wednesday, Jan. 22 at 6pm; and Thursday, Jan. 23 at 8:15pm.
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