Periodically while watching “Midnight Family,” you feel as if you can’t look at the screen for another second. But you can’t look away either. That tension encapsulates the push-pull of this documentary, a haunting portrait of a family of emergency medical workers in Mexico City. Because as you tag along on another wild nighttime ride, and yet one more life-or-death race, the family’s careening ambulance seems like an emblem both of their reality and of your own whiplashing position as a viewer.
The family at its center, the Ochoas, own and operate one of the many private ambulances that serve Mexico City. Director Luke Lorentzen takes you right inside the ambulance, squeezing you in alongside the Ochoas and several others as they tend to traumatized victims and an occasional member of a patient’s family. It’s no surprise that it can be a deeply distressing fit. Nearly as alarming, though, are those instances when the Ochoas race a rival ambulance to the next accident and the documentary enters that unsettling zone where the pleasures of the chase (and good filmmaking) slam into your ethical sensibility, which is to Lorentzen’s point.
Your stomach may start jumping (your thoughts, too) even before the movie and ambulance take off. After opening with some sober scene-setting — a man washing blood off a bright yellow stretcher — Lorentzen drops in some of the documentary’s few informational details.
“In Mexico City,” reads text on a dark screen, “the government operates fewer than 45 emergency ambulances for a population of 9 million.” Much of the city’s emergency health care, the note continues, is handled by “a loose system of private ambulances.” The Ochoas belong to this informal network, tending to hundreds of patients each year from inside their red-and-white ambulance.
Serving as his own cinematographer, Lorentzen spends a lot of time in the back of that van, a space that you settle into as workers and patients enter and exit. He regularly points the camera at the windshield, giving you front-row access to the chaos; every so often, he trains it on the rear-door windows, as if looking for an escape. Another camera, mounted on the top of the dashboard, enables you to see inside the van, where Fer, the Ochoa paterfamilias, is generally found riding shotgun beside one son, Juan, a 17-year-old with a meticulous fade haircut and the wheel skills of a NASCAR racer.
When the sirens blare and lights flash, Fer and Juan can make a formidable, at times grimly diverting, tag team. “Get out of my way, bicycle!” Fer yells over the ambulance loudspeaker in an early scene, as the intensely focused Juan drives and another of Fer’s sons — the babyish-looking Josué, who’s around 10 — tries to steady himself in the rear. As Lorentzen cuts from the van’s occupants to the darkly jeweled street and back again, everyone and everything passing by is told where to go. “Keep moving, bus!” Fer yells, before slipping into street-philosopher mode. “This is why people die!” he says, over a lingering shot of Josué. “Because people like you don’t move!”
The juxtaposition of Josué’s face and Fer’s words are representative of Lorentzen’s method. Embracing a familiar observational approach, he doesn’t talk you through “Midnight Family” but instead lets his filmmaking choices convey his thoughts on the Ochoas and the mercenary world they inhabit. (He edited the documentary and is one of its producers.) Lorentzen never explains how he found the family, who not only granted him seemingly free access to their ambulance, but also brought him into their home. He’s more expansive in the production notes where he says that he introduced himself after he saw Jose cleaning the van while Josué was playing with a soccer ball.
“Midnight Family” can be tough to watch, but it never feels unprincipled or indulgently exploitative. Some of the most traumatic incidents have, of course, occurred before the ambulance roars up, but not all. Even when the worst happens, Lorentzen doesn’t turn the gore and tears into a spectacle, and it’s instructive that some of the most dreadful moments take place off-camera or are conveyed through the triage patter or in later conversations. He also tends to obscure the faces of the wounded and whether legally or ethically motivated, this discretion is a relief. It’s humanizing for the victims (be warned that these include children) and for the viewer.
One of the enduring hurdles in visual storytelling is how to represent the suffering of others without adding to it, a difficulty that Lorentzen has clearly weighed. That’s evident in his point of view, what he shows you and doesn’t, and obvious in his empathetic portrayal of the Ochoas. They’re an appealing, affecting collection of souls, and you, too, want the best for them, even when you grasp their role in a system plagued by class inequities and inadequate services, kickbacks and shakedowns. Here, if it bleeds, it leads right into everyone’s pocket — the police, emergency workers, hospitals — a truism that makes this documentary feel finally, appallingly, universal.
“Midnight Family,” a documentary by Luke Lorentzen. 81 minutes. Not rated; for mature audiences. In Spanish, with English subtitles. Opens Jan. 3 at Northwest Film Forum, Pacific Place (Friday only). The New York Times does not provide star ratings with reviews.