Documentary Review: Ambulance Drivers of Mexico City are the “Midnight Family”

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The sprints, hurtling through the crowded streets of Mexico City, are a matter of life and death.

Sirens wailing, lights flashing, a paramedic bellowing over the megaphone, “Taxi, move MOVE” or “You idiot on the bicycle! GET ON THE SIDEWALK!”

And that’s just the race to get to the accident scene. In Mexico City, there are virtually no “government” ambulances. And the few private ones compete in mad dashes to get to the accident, fight or shooting first. If they don’t, nobody gets paid — not the crew, the cops who might have tipped them about the need for their services, and who expect a bribe even if they didn’t.

The patients? Often they fight over paying up.

“Midnight Family” is a harrowing and cautionary inside look at the Wild West of Mexico City emergency services. “The private sector” has taken so much of “public” care that it’s every beat-up old ambulance for itself, with pricey private hospitals paying kickbacks for deliveries and dirty cops hassling drivers over their licenses, their professionalism and their slowness over paying them bribes to let them do what they came to do.

Director Luke Lorentzen (“New York Cuts”) puts us in the front seat of the Med Care van staffed by the men of the Ochoa family, freelance entrepreneurs trying to feed and care for a big family from inside an ambulance. Their story has thrills and compassion, hard luck and grief.

And in them, any North American can see a cautionary tale of what happens to a health care system left up to its libertarian, market-driven devices. People are suffering and dying as money-grubbing corruption slows down the most basic of services — saving those hurt, in bleeding and in pain.

Fernando seems to be the patriarch, and he and (I take it) his brother Manuel are the ones who comfort the teen girl whose boyfriend just broke her nose, who pat and plead with a baby, whose glue-sniffing dad has accidentally injured, to resume breathing.

Juan is the mouthy 17 year-old go-getter. He likes to drive, uses his down time to breathlessly recite his evening’s exploits to his older girlfriend. He chews on Fernando to “take this seriously,” whenever they’re asked for their “papers” by a cop.

“This ambulance FEEDS us,” he pleads (in Spanish, with English subtitles).

Rolypoly Josúe can’t be more than 12. He rattles around the back as the ambulance recklessly races down the street, locking this bit of gear down, for he too has a role here. He’s not just onboard to complain about food and the money it’s going to cost for his next meal.

Lorentzen sees elements of the fictional features “Nightcrawler” and the Nic Cage ambulance driver tragi-comedy “Bringing Out the Dead” here, and plays them up. Ambulance drivers compete like gladiators running the chariot race in “Ben-Hur.” Losing can be life threatening. But they compare notes while sitting around on centrally located street corners, waiting for that next call. Which cops are the biggest pain, what was their toughest ride this week?

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Accident scenes are chaotic. The cops aren’t there to direct traffic. They’re “investigating” and doing paperwork and hassling ambulance crews, chiding them for not having the right “plate,” the required gear or what have you.

“Midnight Family” lets us be touched by Fernando’s compassion, his inability to strong-arm victims and family members who (off camera, but overheard) haggle over the fees of paramedics who just tended to their loved-one and raced them to the hospital, often of their choice.

But the whole “system” is just appalling, a bare bones service struggling to meet the demand of a largely-uninsured populace and a medical establishment which isn’t just two-tiered, it’s sliding-scale budgeted. “Government hospital,” where you’re lucky if they can squeeze you in, deluxe “private hospital” where you expect the best care, and other private hospitals which sit somewhere in the middle, unless they’re too far away to do anybody any good.

No, you do NOT want to have an accident or need of emergency services in Mexico City. What’s even scarier is how the worst parts of that experience could take over anywhere that tax-supported services are slashed in a “You’re on your on, pal” race to the bottom.

3stars2

MPA Rating: unrated, limited graphic injury footage

Cast: Juan Ochoa, Fernando Ochoa, Manuel Ochoa and Josúe Ochoa.

Credits: Directed, shot, written and edited by Luke Lorentzen. A 1091 Media release.

Running time: 1:20

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