“DOCUMENTARIES can be thrilling and immersive, just as much as fiction,” says young US director/cinematographer/producer Luke Lorentzen, who is in Canberra for the “Stronger Than Fiction” documentary film festival, which kicked off at its new location, Dendy Cinemas, earlier this week.
Co-directed by Deborah Kingsland and Hannah de Feyter, the festival aims to connect people with new ideas and “shake them up a bit”.
De Feyter told a packed house on Wednesday that the dual strength of the documentary form was to show audiences both truth and beauty, but Lorentzen was more in search of truth than beauty when, over three years, he spent almost 100 nights in an ambulance in Mexico City, shooting his Sundance Festival sensation, “Midnight Family”.
It’s an 81-minute film following the lives of the Ochoa family, operators of a private ambulance service in a city where the government provides only 45 ambulances for a population of nine million people.
Lorentzen’s earliest ventures into cinema vérité took place in his native Connecticut, where from age 10 he enjoyed shooting footage of his friends skateboarding.
Later, while studying art history at Stanford University, California, he looked in on the university’s graduate study courses in documentary film-making, suspecting that legendary film maker Werner Herzog’s advice that anyone could learn all you needed to know about making films in 15 minutes was an exaggeration. Film and the history of art proved a good combination.
“Filmmaking is a lot more democratic that it was 20 years ago,” he says, adding that in the ’60s or ’70s it was too expensive but now anyone could buy an A-list camera for about $500.
“It opens up the playing field… I had a supportive family when I was studying, but since I started making films I’ve been able to put food on the table,” he says.
All the same, Lorentzen stresses, in the US, where government funding for the arts is limited, making a film involves years of fundraising.
There were grants from the Sundance Institute and in San Francisco wealthy supporters for documentary film making, but in fact, he reports, “the Mexican Government put more money into my film than the US”.
Having spent a whole year in Spain on school exchange, he was already fluent in Spanish, and on graduating, moved with a close friend to Mexico City with the vague intention of making a documentary in which vehicles like limousines, cement trucks and buses would become the characters.
One “character” was to be an ambulance.
When, by sheer chance, he saw a night-time ambulance outside the apartment, he asked the driver what they were doing. This was 17-year-old Juan Ochoa, known as the fastest ambulance driver in the city and it opened the doors to Lorentzen on a world of terrifying midnight driving, races to hospitals, interventions by corrupt officials, and stand-ups with customers who either couldn’t or wouldn’t pay.
“I asked if I could travel with them… the first night blew my mind,” he tells “CityNews”.
“The family became the character, and their story was far more complex than I had imagined, it was a gold mine.”
Following the festival motto that truth is stronger than fiction, he found himself a witness to “a whole spectrum of human emotifeatured, ons, from goofy humour to horrible things, to a whole system of corruption”.
So enticed was he by Mexico City as “a fantastic city” that he found himself wanting to live there longer after he’d finished the film, saying, “it’s complicated and corrupt, but it’s a wild place, full of energy, really attractive”.
Presenting the Ochoa family fairly was complex.
“They’re a mom-and-pop business making a living in cutthroat work, but often juggling ethical questions to stay afloat—that’s very hard to do… there were nights when I felt they were saving lives and there were nights when they were pushing the limits,” he says.
He didn’t want to whitewash the “for-profit” health system that operates in Mexico City, but he showed a family forced to make complex decisions every day, something a New York doctor told him was very familiar in the US too.
The main challenge came in the editing process, finding a balance between the good and bad without sugar-coating in his six focus scenes.
“I shot, I edited… I shot again, I edited… I spent 100 nights in the back of an ambulance, and I spent three years searching for a connection putting the building blocks together.”
“My film is purely observational, there are no interviews and no music, and culminates with my not quite knowing what the answers are.”
“Midnight Family”, 4pm, Saturday, August 3, followed by a Q&A with director Luke Lorentzen. “Stronger Than Fiction” then continues until Sunday, August 4. Then, on August 5, the directors will announce the 10 most popular films, which will screen from August 9-18. Bookings and all details at dendy.com.au