LIFF Screens ‘Midnight Family,’ Desperate First Aid

Mexico City’s Ambulance Rat Race
By RICK MELLERUP | Jul 30, 2019

Surf City — The Lighthouse International Film Festival is teaming up with the Surf City Volunteer Fire Company and EMS to present the documentary “Midnight Family” at 8:30 p.m. on Tuesday, Aug. 6 at the firehouse, 713 Long Beach Blvd.

The screening will be preceded by a get-together featuring a gourmet hot dog bar with sides, beer and wine from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. Proceeds will benefit the fire company and the film festival. Admission to the screening is $5 for adults but free for children, students, all first responders and Lighthouse International Film Society members. Tickets will be sold at the door but advance purchase is highly recommended due to limited space. Obtain tickets online at, at the Lighthouse Film Society tab.

The Surf City Fire Company and Lighthouse International Film Festival have partnered for years, with the firehouse serving as a festival venue each June. This special screening seems a natural for a fire company that also provides emergency medical services; “Midnight Family” is an intense documentary that follows an ambulance as it makes its nightly rounds in Mexico City.

Ambulances often have trouble rushing a patient to a hospital because some drivers won’t get out of the way, despite flashing lights and, occasionally, sirens. On Long Beach Island last week, two ambulances were coming up the Boulevard at about 7 a.m. There was a red light and three cars were backed up in both lanes in front of daddy O. The second and third drivers in the righthand lane had nowhere to go. The lead car had inched forward as the ambulances approached from the rear but the driver froze, not wanting to run the red light. Yet the motorist could have made a right on red and the other cars could have followed, thus allowing the three cars in the left lane to move right, freeing the lane for the ambulances. He or she didn’t, and the ambulances needed to thread traffic in the middle of the road.

Another problem was illustrated by that incident. There were two ambulances because one was from a local volunteer first aid squad while the other was a Monmouth Ocean Hospital Service Corporation ambulance. Volunteer squad EMTs (emergency medical technicians) can provide basic lifesaving services such as CPR, defibrillation and administering oxygen; MONOC paramedics, who have far more training, can do things such as intubation, administering medicine in consultation with an ER physician, and employing intravenous therapy. MONOC vehicles are typically deployed if patients say they are suffering from chest pain, or have difficulty breathing.

Who wouldn’t want a paramedic responding instead of an EMT? Simple – people who don’t want to be hit with a bill – sometimes quite large – from MONOC, especially when its paramedics don’t end up providing advanced lifesaving services. Insurance may pay some of it, but almost all patients will be responsible for co-pays and the like. Volunteer squads in New Jersey typically don’t charge, although they would be thrilled with a donation.

“Midnight Family,” directed by Luke Lorentzen, follows a private ambulance owner, the Ochoa family – father Fernando and two sons, 17-year-old Juan and his younger brother, Josue, through the crazy streets of Mexico City as they race to pick up patients. They truly do race because they want to arrive on the scene of an accident or medical emergency before other ambulances, public and private.

There are only about 45 public ambulances serving Mexico City’s population of 9 million. So private ambulances have stepped into the breach. Folks like the Ochoa family hope to get paid for their services. Often they don’t, despite their haggling, and the family barely manages to eke out an existence.

One scene in the film is especially harrowing, as described by Nick Schager of Variety:

“Serving as his own cinematographer and editor, directer Lorentzen generates intense empathy by following Juan and Fern during a breakneck attempt to get a young girl with a traumatic brain injury to a hospital – yelling at passing cars through a loudspeaker, and giving traffic directions to each other – while the girl’s terrified mother sits beside them in the front seat. At such moments, the film achieves a powerful measure of suspense that’s intricately tied up in its despairing, sociological depiction of a system that’s come apart at the seams.”

If ambulance drivers in Southern Ocean County think they have it rough in the summer because of traffic tie-ups, well, they may feel they have it lucky after viewing “Midnight Family.” The traffic in crowded Mexico City is a nightmare. And the competition between private ambulances is cutthroat. And if ambulance owners can be paid bribes to take patients to private instead of public hospitals, they must pay out bribes to corrupt police officers. As for the patients, God only knows what sort of training ambulance crews have had.

“Fantastically shot by the director Luke Lorentzen, the documentary develops an urgency that suits the life-or-death stakes onscreen,” wrote Manohla Dargis for The New York Times. “By turns terrifying and exhilarating, ‘Midnight Family’ unfolds with such velocity that it may take a while for your ethical doubts to catch up to what’s happening. When they do, they leave you gasping.”

Rick Mellerup


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