Young director Luke Lorentzen's superb film tells story of family in Mexican capital operating private ambulance service
Luke Lorentzen emerged in the past year as one of the most exciting new talents in nonfiction filmmaking, earning a spot on the Oscar shortlist with his feature documentary Midnight Family. When I spoke with him for a piece for Deadline.com early in the year he was 26 years old; I'm not sure when his birthday is -- by now he may be all of 27.
His superbly crafted film offers an intimate look at the Ochoas, a family in Mexico City that runs one of the capital's many private ambulance services (there are only a few dozen public ambulances serving a city of 9 million people). Charismatic teenager Juan Ochoa drives the medi-wagon, with his father -- the lightly-trained paramedic Fer -- next to him and younger brother Josué (a scene-stealer if there ever was one) in the back. They streak from location to location trying to get to accident scenes before their competitors.
Midnight Family made its debut on home video and digital platforms this week, including iTunes, Amazon and YouTube. It has won numerous awards at film festivals around the world, including Jerusalem, Guanajuato, Guadalajara and the Sheffield International Documentary Festival last June where it earned the Grand Jury Prize. Lorentzen also won the editing award at the IDA Awards in December. He told me the effusive praise for the film exceeded his expectations.
"It's gone beyond my wildest dreams, to be honest," he said. "I started making the film in 2015... And you make it because you love the process and you love the story. And at least I wasn't really thinking of what the reception would be. You just work and work to make it the best film that you can and hope that people respond to what you responded to."
When we spoke in January, Lorentzen explained how the film came about.
"I moved to Mexico City right after I graduated from college. My college roommate was from there and encouraged me to go back with him and [it was] a little bit of a spontaneous decision," he recalled. "I was 23 years old and didn't have a job. And I had a few ideas for films that I wanted to try and make. I'm fascinated by mega cities and had seen a bunch of films shot in Mexico City that were some of my favorite films of all time."
He continued, "The ideas that I was trying to pull off just weren't really working out. But one morning I woke up and parked right in front of a house that I was living in was this family, the Ochoa family, and their private ambulance. I guess I was curious enough to ask them if I could ride along for a night. And that first evening [I] just saw this whole underworld of for-profit health care that was raising really big ethical questions but also keeping a city from falling apart."
The ethical concerns become apparent in the course of the film. For one thing, plenty of law enforcement officials expect bribes to allow the Ochoas and people like them to stay in business. For another thing, private ambulances can't force patients to pay -- it's a bit of an honor system. So these first responders have an incentive to take patients to private hospitals that are more likely to foot the ambulance bill -- but in some cases those private hospitals may not be the closest ones to the scene of an accident or provide the best care. As a filmmaker, Lorentzen didn't try to signal to the audience how to feel about these issues.
"The film is so much about these ambiguous ethical moments. And some people really want answers and find that to be sometimes unfulfilling [to not have things spelled out]", Lorentzen observed. "So it's a balance of giving people enough to chew on and enough to really process what's going on without giving you the answer to things that truly don't have good answers."
The trailer gives a good feel for the visceral excitement of the film -- the audience taken for a ride as the Ochoas jump into action. It's an observational documentary, elevated to a cinematic feel through the director's artistic choices, including shooting a good deal of it on sticks.
"One of the things that really saved the film was that I knew every single night the Ochoa family would have the same routine. So unlike some observational films where if you don't film the concert or the football game perfectly the first time you're screwed and you've lost the whole story, I could try things that were a little bit riskier and fail knowing that I would have another night to fix it, come up with an even better solution," Lorentzen explained. "So shooting on sticks was part of that wanting a really controlled specific look to each shot knowing that what I was filming was already so bubbling over with energy. But it took months and months of being in the ambulance to learn how to get the sticks to be in the right place and how to still be nimble and how to react properly while also keeping the camera really locked down and controlled."
Lorentzen spent three years shooting with the Ochoas. Over time he came up with a strategy to document their response to emergency calls.
"I shot [the film] as just a one person crew. And one of the big challenges was how do I cover everything that's happening in the front [of the ambulance] -- people that are driving -- and in the back?" Lorentzen said. "I came up with this system where I mounted on the hood of the ambulance outside of the windshield, a full professional camera to film the people driving. And then I had a second camera with me in the back. And that would get me the coverage that I needed. But it was a lot of equipment to juggle... It's been a lot of trial and error trying to get that to work as I hoped it would."
After the triumph of Midnight Family, Lorentzen is weighing even more ambitious projects.
"I'm hoping to start shooting a new feature next year... and take a lot of what I learned on Midnight Family and hopefully do it on a bigger scale," he told me. "I'd love to do something that's IMAX and taking their type filmmaking to a big theatrical space. I feel like there's so much potential for documentaries to really [do] everything that cinema has to offer. I'm excited to keep making films that explore those questions and give people moving and thrilling experiences."
Matthew Carey is a documentary filmmaker and journalist. His work has appeared on Deadline.com, CNN, CNN.com, TheWrap.com, NBCNews.com and in Documentary magazine.