Open City Documentary Festival

Open City Documentary Festival 2019 – Focus: Midnight Family, One Family Trying To Make A Living

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In Midnight Family, director Luke Lorentzen documents crisis and corruption in Mexico City through the Ochoa family’s private ambulance service. Here, Lorentzen speaks to Caitlin Quinlan about the ethics of capturing life and death in a world where morality is less than affordable. 

How did the Ochoa family become the focus of this film? 

I moved to Mexico City just after graduating from college with a pretty specific idea of a film that I was going to make, a series of portraits of different vehicles all across the city. I woke up one morning and found the Ochoas parked in front of my apartment building and asked them if I could ride along with them in their ambulance, and in that first night I saw the whole spectrum of feelings from humour to tragedy, all anchored in this one family trying to make a living. I quickly decided that I would try and make them the focus instead. 

You were the only crew member on this film. What was the experience of solo-shooting like?

The pros were pretty obvious from the beginning in that being alone meant I could be as small and out of the way as possible. That made it easier for me to be in the right place at the right time, and to build this relationship with the Ochoas which ultimately was what the whole film was resting on – will this family let me in as far as I need to be let in? It took three years for that to happen and I don’t think it ever would have happened had I been even two or three people. It was also a matter of certain questions of safety and ethics, and all of these things I wanted to be responsible for myself and not drag a crew through. 

I was juggling a lot of equipment however, and that took weeks to figure out how to do. There was one camera mounted on the hood of the ambulance and I had another camera with me in the back, and there were four wireless microphones. There were moments where we were speeding to an accident and nothing was in the right place and I just wanted to collapse. 

What was your approach to the ethical questions of documenting such life-threatening situations?

It was something I was really worried about from the beginning – how do I capture this story in a way that feels ethical to me and ethical to the patients? The first several weeks I was in the ambulance I wasn’t in the back at all, I was just filming through the windshield and not going there until I felt I had built up a sense of how things unfolded. I think half of the accidents that we went to were accidents where I just stopped filming because someone asked me to or because it didn’t feel right. It’s a really difficult feeling to have something unfold that feels perfect for your film, but you’re dealing with such intense and important moments for these people that you need to have the wherewithal to put that feeling aside and turn off the camera because of what’s going on.

The last accident in the film where you see a mother on the way to the hospital was something that I filmed in that first phase where I was only in the front of the ambulance, and I captured it without really wanting to or expecting to. In three years filming with the Ochoas that was the only night where anyone got in the front of the ambulance. It was this frantic moment, and I almost deleted the footage because I didn’t feel great about how that had all unfolded, but I kept it and months later showed it to an old film professor of mine who encouraged me to go and find the mother and tell her about the film. And so I did that, and about six months after that accident I went and knocked on her door and eventually I found out that her daughter had been studying journalism. She felt the film was something her daughter would’ve been comfortable being a part of and we talked for several hours. It’s maybe one example of trying to connect with these patients in different ways and making sure I had spoken to them about the film, which wasn’t always easy. 

The Ochoas are at the mercy of corruption in their city, and that means their own actions are not always free from ethical problems themselves. 

I think it’s an extremely complicated situation where right and wrong are kind of thrown out the window for a different version of the best that these people can do. They’re in a situation where always doing the right thing isn’t a luxury that they have, in this system where putting food on the table has unfortunately come into conflict with treating people the way that they would want to always treat them, and that was a central tension from day one of being in their ambulance. There is a ladder of victims as a result of corruption; the patients are being victimised by the ambulance system, the ambulance system is a victim of police enforcement, police enforcement is a victim of the government. It shows how these big dysfunctional systems slowly trickle down and are affecting the life and death of people in horrible situations.

Did you feel a responsibility in your editing of the film to engage with that conflict?

There were versions of the film where I didn’t know the Ochoas well enough yet to feel comfortable showing how vulnerable they get and I wanted to sugercoat things, and that started to create a film that was really off the mark. Then there were cuts where we showed everything and that quickly threw them under the bus and made them look like total villains. The challenge was finding that balance between good and bad that felt really true to how I felt, and felt true to what their life is like. It was hard to frame it within this bigger system of corruption and hard to set up the tension in a way where you understand why they’re doing what they’re doing but still wish there was a better alternative. 

There is something incredibly fast-paced and thrilling about the film, as well as it being very intimate and profound.

You don’t often find a documentary subject that allows you to have multiple car chases! But that was part of wanting to make this film from the beginning, just thinking about it less thematically and more about what the limits of observational cinema are in terms of the thrill and the experience and the sensory feeling that you can get, and this subject matter provided this really rich environment where I could just film things and edit them in a very simple way, not using music, not using interviews, and create a rollercoaster for people that felt like a thriller. 

Within this little metal van you see a whole spectrum of people’s emotions. People are extremely vulnerable and sometimes scared, or kind of unleashed in a way that feels really raw. It was really surprising to me how many people were willing to share that. As I said, about half of the accidents I didn’t film but that means the other half I did because people were ok with it, and that was a really powerful thing to be able to experience, not just the moments in the film but the thousands of accidents that were all life changing experiences.

Caitlin Quinlan is a London based film writer whose articles have appeared in Sight & Sound, Little White Lies and others; and a programmer with Bechdel Test Fest.

Luke Lorentzen’s Midnight Family screens on Thursday 5th September at Curzon Soho