“I wanted the film to be a roller coaster ride, ethically, emotionally, and sensorially”
An interview with Luke Lorentzen, director of “Midnight Family”
In this exhilarating chronicle of a Mexican family who drive a private for-profit ambulance around Mexico City, one-man-crew Luke Lorentzen reveals a shocking account of economic struggle, government corruption, and the complex, moral shadiness of surviving within a dysfunctional social order. Speaking about his documentary feature debut, Midnight Family, which won a prize for Best Cinematography at Sundance, Lorentzen discusses his outsider status, and how he got close to the Ochoa family, the film’s most famous shot, and not having the privilege of being able to do the right thing.
So was it really just you alone making this film?
It was just me and a camera, over three years. I don’t like saying that. But I did have Kellen Quinn as a lead producer and two Mexican co-producers. But in terms of shooting the film, directing, and editing it, it was a one-man show. It started that way, because I was eager to make a movie and I didn’t have a lot of funding. And then it was clear that this was the best way to make it, because of privacy and ethical considerations, and just getting out of the way. We had a Mexican editor, Paloma Lopez-Carrillo, who was the first one to take a stab at cutting the movie. I think it was important to give the footage to somebody who was born and bred in Mexico City, and has worked in the Mexican community for a long time, and deconstruct some of the assumptions I had about what I had filmed. It’s really hard to edit a film that you experienced, so it gave me the distance. But then I went back and reshot for three weeks. And in this period, about 60-70% of the film was made from this last shoot.
What crystallized during those last few weeks?
My first thought is that it took that much time to get the relationships that I needed in order for the film to unfold. It took weeks and weeks before the Ochoas showed me the full complexity of what they did and the decisions they were forced to make. And there was something really powerful about returning. There were three different shoots, and every time I would go back after six months, there was an increased amount of trust that came it. And in that last shoot, they were in a slightly trickier situation than before: it was a particularly tough week for them financially, so some of the trickier behaviors had been easier to capture. There were also some roadside accidents that happened that I knew that I needed to complete the story. There was a big luck factor, as is the case with lots of docs.
One big question, which I’m sure will come up a lot for you, is who are you, this white American guy, to tell the Ochoas’ story?
It’s obviously something that the whole team put a lot of thought into from the very beginning. What was clear from the start of the film was the unlikely relationship that I had to build with the Ochoa family. Over the course of three years, I spent months and months with them. Verite filmmaking is at its best when a director can dive into someone else’s world and build a connection. I still see them regularly and eat dinners with them on the weekends and I still live in Mexico City. So there’s a real connection there. They showed me Mexico City, and their culture and how they live. It’s true I’m not Mexican; I didn’t grow up in Mexico, but I showed up there with a curiosity and eagerness to find a story. There’s a fresh sensibility that comes with being somewhere new, and I hope it takes the viewers to a world that is completely foreign to them, but with the feelings of being there and the complications of being there. I’m a strong believer, when done thoughtfully, that when you have a true connection with the people you’re filming, those boundaries start to dissolve. Real powerful things happen when those boundaries are broken. Yes, it can be problematic when those relationships are half-baked and the outsider gaze never fully gets properly what it is that they’re looking at.
In one of the film’s most notable shots, your presence becomes known, as the camera, operated by you, all of sudden leaps into the back of the ambulance. Can you talk about it, and why you chose to include that shot?
There’s a visceral feeling there: this spontaneous need to shift gears and jump into these traumatic things. From the very beginning, I wanted the film to be a roller coaster ride, both sensorially, ethically and emotionally, so it felt like it was right to include a moment that was raw, and this shift from a sleepier moment to an immediate call to action. I wanted the film to be cinematic and constructed in a way, but there’s a certain slickness that I didn’t want to take away from the realism of it. And throwing a few reminders that this is a documentary, that this is something that’s really happening, that was important.
Can you talk about your visual influences?
I’ve always been inspired by Michael Glawogger’s movies, mostly the visual angles he uses rather than the narrative. “Whore’s Glory,” in particular, has this neon nighttime, gritty glow to it that really blew me away. I’ve also always been inspired by the Harvard Sensory Ethnology Lab films. There was a version of this movie that was shot off entirely through the ambulance windshield, like the SEL film “Manakamana.” This was an example of coming at the film more rigidly. But as the movie came along, I got more interested in the characters and the story. One of the central challenges in verite filmmaking is the balance between deciding on how you want the film to look and letting the action dictate how your film looks. I wanted to do a combination of those moments that were intentional and specifically framed, and some that are crazier, captured in a looser way. What’s cool about the ambulance is that it’s an enclosed space that I could get to know, that I could have some control over when thinking about the film visually. I already know what the lens would be and what it would look it.
I feel like it’s important to note that this isn’t a film just about the Ochoas or the ambulance, but it’s a pretty sharp look at a level of corruption in Mexico City that is widespread.
Yes, [corruption] gets deep into the bone marrow of a city, to the point that hard-working and good-hearted people like the Ochoas, who are really trying to take care of people, are pushed and pushed and pushed to places where they would never be otherwise. They’re not even given the privilege of taking the time to think about these ethical things. In early grant applications, I was writing about the privilege of being able to do the right thing, or being able to ask what doing the right thing is. And the Ochoas are operating on a much tighter spectrum. The film shows a personal end point where the effects of corruption are real, tangible, and dealing with lives and deaths, and the government’s completely inability to be there for them.