When it comes to putting a short together with a feature, In The Absence is perfectly coupled with Midnight Family, as In The Absence also focuses on the horrific results of government failure. In The Absence examines the sinking of the Korean ferry, the M.V. Sewol in 2014. The film addresses the consequences of government corruption and needless bureaucracy damningly, as the callousness for the lives lost due to mismanagement is framed like a horror film. The film never feels sensationalist, drawing its horror from archival phone calls and diving footage. The diving scenes in particular envelop the audience in a creepy atmosphere, showing the wreckage through murky waters, as divers talk about the corpses without showing them. Every victory feels hollow, as the filmmakers never let you forget the cost of the government’s mismanagement, reminding you that the damage was already done.
In The Absence can be viewed in it’s entirety here
Much like how In The Absence is a documentary masquerading as a horror film, Midnight Family was a documentary masquerading as a thriller. Few documentaries have made me feel like I was a part of the story like Midnight Family. For as impressive as the story was, I didn’t expect the film to be so intense, so energized. For an hour and a half, I wasn’t an audience member, I was a passenger. A passenger in this ambulance, a cog in an already broken health care system, trying to make a living and save lives. All of those anxieties and mixed emotions are perfectly on display in Midnight Family.
The documentary follows the Ochoa family in Mexico City, as they run a private ambulance service, using police scanners to find patients and sending them to hospitals. Right away, the characters are clearly established. The three family members, Fer, Josue, and Juan, are all given distinct personalities and conflicts. It’s easy to care about them because their struggles are relatable, while at the same time presenting an interesting ethical quandary. The film addresses not just the family’s financial situation, but the overall weak economy in the area. As such, while they do need to provide for their family, and they offer a legitimate service, they are also technically taking advantage of people in desperate situations. So it leads to interesting ethically questions for how they receive their funds, only further complicated by obstacles they have to overcome, from supporting their ambulances to bribing corrupt cops. The film never really takes sides, instead of presenting both perspectives, adding complexity to their profession as private ambulance drivers. All of these conflicts are well presented, with the ante upped during the driving scenes.
The scenes where the Ochoa family has to pick up patients are incredibly intense. The camera either focuses on the driving family or the back seat, as the ambulance races down the traffic and stoplights. The editing is minimal, sometimes leaving the camera stoic. The sound design focuses on sirens and drifting cars instead of adding any music. We never really see the patients, either hearing them or getting a partial view. Not only does it prevent the film from being exploitive and voyeuristic, but it also adds to the tension. Nothing is scarier than what you come up within your head. These scenes do an excellent job putting the viewer in the ambulance, along for the ride.
The director of the film, Luke Lorentzen, actually discussed his initial hesitation to film any of the patients. He discussed how initially he wasn’t going to shoot any of the patients, instead just telling the story with one camera mounted on the hood of the ambulance. He said he wasn’t initially comfortable navigating the accidents:
“In the first week, the mother you see at the end of the film got in the front of the ambulance. I filmed that final accident, the journey from accident to the hospital, really without wanting to. It was something I was totally unprepared to do and honestly felt quite guilty about it. I was about to delete the footage the next day but kept it, thought about it a little more and showed it to an old film professor of mine. He encouraged me to try and find the mother, whose address I had from the radio call. I built up the courage to knock on her door, six months after that night. She let me in, and we spent two hours talking about what happened, and it turned out her daughter had been a journalism student, so she gave me permission to use that scene in the film. I think that experience taught me that there were ways to actively connect with people despite the really vulnerable way that these accidents played out. I learned to make this call of whether to turn off the camera entirely…and trying to find ways to connect with these people.”
Not only does the documentary show that Luke Lorentzen knows of how to build tension and atmosphere, but also that he has respect for the subject matter. Through this respect, he was able to develop an intimate relationship with the Ochoa family, giving him the freedom to explore the family’s work, and frame it from whatever perspective felt right to him. The film shows that you don’t need gore or sensationalism to tell a story that’s as intense as it is honest. Luke Lorentzen made both a fantastic documentary and thriller, and I’m excited to see what stories he tells next.
Midnight Family is available in theaters now as a limited release