Midnight Family – Interview with Director Luke Lorentzen

Midnight Family – Interview with Director Luke Lorentzen

3rd December 2020

Luke Lorentzen is a young guy who talks with an instinctive humanism about film making and the people he films. He is also prolific, having already made three cult documentaries, including the award winning Santa Cruz del Islote, and worked on another sleeper hit for Netflix, Last Chance U. His latest feature length, Midnight Family, is a white-knuckle ride inside a family run private ambulance in Mexico City. Shot over four years, it has all the hallmarks of a great participant-observer style documentary – intimate access to people living extraordinary lives, action, high drama and a strong sense of empathy for its subjects. MadeGood Films sat down with Luke to learn about how the film came about, and to get into the process behind creating a low budget success such as this. How does one balance the interpersonal, ethical, story-telling, aesthetic and logistical aspects of documentary film making? How do you do justice to your subjects, and avoid profiteering from their precarious lives? It turns out that basic human decency has a lot to do with it; that, and a chance encounter that on this occasion opened up the extraordinary, high stakes world of emergency medical care in Mexico’s capital.

‘I moved to Mexico City shortly after graduating from university at the end of 2015’ Luke explains. ‘My college roommate was from there and took me back with him. It was a rather spontaneous thing. I had a few different ideas for films that I wanted to try and shoot there, but I was a young filmmaker without a huge plan.’

One feature of his new neighborhood was striking: the General Hospital. Lengthy queues of sick and injured chilangos would form daily outside this overburdened public facility. It was, he says, ‘impossible to ignore’ on an emotional level. Both serving and surviving from this endless stream of misfortune are 70-80 or so private ambulances. Largely unregulated, with limited resources and dependent on patient-by-patient pay outs for survival, they perform an absolutely vital service to the people of Mexico City. However, they are also often portrayed as “pirates” or parasites, given their role in a broader economy of graft, where bribes and police sanctioned shakedowns are all too common. An influx of ambulance vehicles from across North and Central America following the earthquakes in 1985 are said to have been the start of this phenomena – today they are something of an indispensable evil within one of the largest and most chaotic healthcare systems in the world.

Luke knew little of this when he moved there, however when he saw two teenagers cleaning one of these vehicles outside his apartment, he began to ask questions. The Ochoas are brothers Juan, Josue and their father Fer: ‘they were the ones that really taught me everything’ Luke says. ‘I knew nothing about the pre-hospital or kind of emergency healthcare system in Mexico. Very few people that live there really do. They invited me to join them for a night of work, and in that first night, really, I just saw an immediate film. I saw just such a clear tension between this family needing to make a living and these patients that needed care. The way that money determined a lot of decisions was really complicated and gut-wrenching, and I was just curious to keep exploring that and to get to know this family. They were so unusual to me.’

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Over the course of several weeks in 2016 he filmed some extraordinary encounters: the Ochoas saving a baby’s life one day, hustling a traumatized relative for a meagre payment another. Not surprisingly Luke found it a challenge to process his own emotional responses to his companions’ precarious existence:

‘I think some of my first feelings in the ambulance were ones that came from this sort of American sense of right and wrong, and American sense of how government systems should work. I was quick to overlook these really powerful forces that really pushed the Ochoa’s into a pickle, to put it simply, and really kind of stripped away certain levels of [ethical] agency that I maybe expected.’

Luke gathered hundreds of hours of footage over the course of three years. An early cut raised some interest at film festivals the following year, but the consensus seemed to be that it was lacking something. This realization was a key moment: ‘we had to make this really crucial decision of, do we call the film done and keep submitting to festivals or do we keep working on it?’ Ultimately he decided, along with his producers, to go back for another shoot. ‘There was a lot of work to make sure that that perspective was a valid one. I think the early days, that perspective was very “outsider” and very disconnected from the world that I was documenting. But with each month I spent there, it got closer and started to hold a bit more water and validity.’

Something clicked during the second shoot. That two week period Luke estimates produced 80% of the final footage. ‘All of this knowledge that I had accumulated over the course of just being in this ambulance and playing and filming, crystallised at the same time that my relationship with them had gotten to a point where we really trusted one another. They were willing to really be themselves in a way that I felt they had been in earlier shoots, but haven’t really gotten to this level.’

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It might seem obvious now, but the experience shows how crucial self-reflection and empathy is for a story teller: ‘I think everything that I know about filmmaking I’ve learned on the ground doing. I feel like each film that I’ve made, the sort of kind of skills and mentality needed is so different. Each person you know makes you feel or do different things. Midnight Family was a really long process of learning so many different types of filming and storytelling that I had never really done.’

Luke lucidly describes the protracted, often agonizing process any artist or storyteller goes through with his or her subjects. It is a familiar pattern. Processing one’s emotions becomes integral to the effort of generating a powerful story: ‘I have really visceral reactions to every scene in the film or did when I was shooting them. The challenge of editing it was creating the right mix of feelings that I had when I was in this ambulance… It took a really long time for me to see the ways in which the Ochoa’s are kind of stuck on this food chain of people starting with patients, ambulances, hospitals, police officers, government officials. Kind of this food chain of corruption where very few, if anybody, is getting what they need to survive.’

‘It takes a lot of empathy and a lot of patience to really let go of this sort of individualist mentality of being able to kind of overcome that easily, or to think that it’s all on the shoulders of this one family to do the right thing. It’s far more complex and far more desperate in a lot of ways. One of the questions that I wanted the audience to feel in the film is what would you do if you were them and how would you feel in these certain situations? They are tasked with riding this really, really thin line between right and wrong. All of that took a long time to really get straight.’

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The final version is, as you can see for yourself, a terrific film, and it was particularly pleasing for Luke to be able to share some of the success with the Ochoas at the Sundance film festival. ’We got them visas like 24 hours before they were supposed to get on the plane! It’s always kind of a leap of faith. It was with this film. They had seen it before the festival. I showed them a cut before we looked at the edit. In a really admirable way they didn’t ask for changes. Along the way, I was really clear about asking them what they were comfortable with in the film, and pushed until we got to a point where everything was in the film.’

It is moving to see such a complex social environment portrayed in such a well balanced manner on film. It really does feel like a celebration of the human spirit in modern times, but where the presence of a camera, and the person carrying it, is not obfuscated but is, rather, compellingly drawn into the story being told. In describing  Kirsten Johnson’s Cameraperson, Daniel Walber put it this way: “This is what nonfiction cinema should be, a living dialog that complicates the position of the camera person in invigorating, sometimes emotionally taxing ways.” Luke’s presence in that ambulance – the fact that he was permitted to witness the Ochoa’s lives in action – is a small but significant part of its success as a film. ‘I really do feel like they are telling the story’ he explains. ‘Or at least we gave them a system through which they can tell their story. Getting there really relied on the relationship that we kind of built so that when they’re in front of the camera.

‘So much of the story is about this balance between good and bad, and it hopefully was all going to be framed under this umbrella of good people stuck in a bad situation. That was really what I worked hard for in the edit, but you don’t know if it’s going to work. It was really nerve-wracking. I was just so grateful to see the film work in a way where it didn’t throw them under the bus, at least … At most of the screenings that I’ve been to people really were able to kind of fall in love with them as people all while knowing that there are kind of complex forces in play.’

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