There are just 45 public ambulances in Mexico City, serving a population of around 9 million. The rest of emergency care is provided by an informal system of private ambulances, competing to make profits out of their patients.
This observational film follows the Ochoa family’s fortunes as they run a private ambulance in Mexico City, trying to make a living out of attending to some of the many casualties that public ambulances don’t get to.
This involves negotiating a complex network of police tip-offs, with ever more demanding bribes and police threats and striking informal deals with local hospitals. The family barely scrape a living from their work — at times making a loss when their uninsured patients are unable or unwilling to pay them.
At the heart of the film is the family’s smart red ambulance — as well as treating and transporting patients, the family often sleep in it (the youngest son even has his own cupboard to sleep in), and we see some quieter moments with the Ochoas waiting around in the vehicle between calls, making plans or discussing problems.
The filmmaker intersperses this with the hair-raising ambulance chases as private vehicles race to beat each other to be first to reach a casualty and secure the potentially profitable patients. There are also dramatic drives to hospital in which the pitch is raised by one of the ambulance crew using a megaphone mounted on the outside of the vehicle to loudly berate other road users.
There are some touching moments, revealed in particular through 17 year old Juan’s phone conversations with his off-screen girlfriend, where we occasionally glimpse the emotional toll of grim daily encounters with death and injury.
Despite his young age, Juan is the driving force of the family, often literally as he gleefully speeds the ambulance through the busy streets of Mexico City.
His younger brother tags along for the ride, finding excuses to miss school so that he can hang out snacking and playing ball in the ambulance, and strangely always seeming to have more cash than the adult members of the family.
The family are seen treating patients with care and compassion, but it is clear that the logic of their business pushes them towards aggressively chasing a profit.
Midnight Family offers a glimpse into one family’s efforts to make ends meet and into some of the dramas of emergency care on the streets of Mexico City. More than that, however, it is a slightly unusual, but nonetheless damning indictment of the chaos, inefficiency and failures of private healthcare.