After more than half a decade since its successful premiere in the Sundance Film Festival, Alex Rivera’s “Sleep Dealer” is being distributed once again. A sci-fi thriller, it depicts an uncannily familiar future when infomaquilas, new factories in Mexico where people are physically connected to computer networks to handle robots in the United States, fulfill their North American bosses’ “American dream” by supplying them “all the work, without the workers.” The movie is Rivera’s most elaborate exploration themes that have dominated his films for the last two decades: migration, technology, globalization and social justice.
I recently spoke with Rivera about the movie’s re-release and his filmmaking career. As stated in his biography, “He was born in 1973 to a native of Peru and a native of New Jersey. Growing up in a bi-cultural channel surfing tract home led him to rethink some assumptions about race, immigration, identity and the global economy.” From his high school years in upstate New York when he “met a guy named Pete Seeger,” Rivera became interested in finding ways to make “culture that can be integrated into a process of political change.” He intended to achieve this through music, but classes at Hampshire College on television, film and politics moved him into video and film. As he discusses his first documentary “Papapapá” (1995), his early film production seems almost accidental:
My very first film was made in college, and it was really a way to get out of writing a term paper… I decided to make a documentary instead. I knew I wanted to do a story about immigration and I wanted to do it through my dad’s life, but I was searching for a way to kind of expand that, and to twist that, and to do that kind of a film in a really new way. And then I started to think about it and I said, “Wait the potato in Spanish is papa and father is papá. The potato came from the Andes, which is Peru now, that’s where my dad comes from. They’re both of Inca origin, they both ended up in America, they’re both unchanged.” So it just went one after another and I said, “Wait a second, this is pretty interesting. There’s two sort of very strangely parallel histories here.” And so almost as a threat to my professor in college I said, “Hey… what if I do a film about the potato and my dad?” And he said, “Sounds good.”
Yet, his production of this particular type of movie did not come out of a vacuum, as he remembers his influences while studying at Hampshire College:
I was really impacted by experimental political work that was being done in the 90s by artists like Lourdes Portillo, who does documentary-fiction hybrids. Marlon T. Riggs, an African-American queer artist who does an incredible work in between documentary and performance, breaking down that distinction between fact and fiction. Experimental montage artists out of San Francisco like Craig Baldwin… So I was looking at people that were trying to use film and media in new ways to engage in politics.
This type of aesthetic, combining fictional narratives with a documentary style montage, is evident in what is perhaps one of his best-known productions, the music video to La Santa Cecilia’s “ICE/El Hielo,” produced by the National Day Laborer Organization Network (NDLON):
We wanted to do a video that was going to be a hybrid of fact and fiction. It was going to be a music video so it was going to be staged. So in that sense it was going to be fictional, but we wanted to use the video to tell a true story and to have it reenacted by people who actually lived it. So the result, I think, was powerful and poignant, and it circulated like a news item in The Washington Post and Univision and in part because it was this hybrid of fact and fiction.
Beyond these documentary style narratives, Rivera has been venturing into science fiction. In addition to “Sleep Dealer,” he has recently produced “A Robot Walks into a Bar,” exploring the limits of Isaac Asimov’s “Three Laws of Robotics,” which take as their first premise that the machines should not harm humans.
Rivera sees himself as a pioneer in this field. He is aware of a long tradition of campy B Mexican movies with unreal situations of spaceships and invasions, like “La nave de los monstruos” or “Planeta de las mujeres invasoras.” He is also aware of other artists ranging from Guillermo Gómez Peña to the Hernández brothers, who have delved into elements of science fiction. Yet, for him, few Latinos (and, for that matter, artists of the Global South) have explored the future in the way he has recently done.
Mexican or Latin American cinemas had never looked at the future, tried to imagine what the future would really look like… There is no future on film in Mexico. And it is the same thing in the regional cinemas around the developing world, or the Global South… You find dramas, comedies, action movies; you find everything except the future. That terrain of the future is something that has belonged exclusively to the U.S., to northern Europe, to Japan. That’s starting to change; but Sleep Dealer was the first.
If a hybrid style characterized Rivera’s early documentary-fictional narrative films, it is also very present in his forays into science fiction. The worlds he presents are definitely of the future, with intelligent robots and ubiquitous computer networks controlling every aspect of human life (marketing even their memories), yet these worlds are also firmly anchored in the present, and reminiscent of the past. In both “Sleep Dealer” and “A Robot Walks into a Bar,” the topics are futuristic, but much of the machinery and props seem to have been taken from the 1950s or 1960s. We asked him about this aesthetic decision.
As a filmmaker I’m always trying to turn a weakness into strength. One of the weaknesses, or the challenges I’ve always had is limited budgets… You can try to pretend that you have more money, or you can embrace it and try to make something magical out of it. That’s always been my approach. And what ends up happening with this science fiction that has this limited budgets, is that the future ends up kind of uneven. A funky future. You end up spending some money and time on one set, but not somewhere else. The result is an uneven world, and while the result is not as refined as a Ridley Scott future, it is coincidentally more true to the world we live in.
Whether he produces a Ridley Scott future or not is irrelevant—his movies’ effects are extraordinary and his resourcefulness admirable. When he told me about using car-detailing cables for some of the special effects, I could not but think about him bringing the high rasquache art of the low riders to movie production. As Tomás Ybarra-Frausto reminds us in his classic essay “Rasquachismo: a Chicano Sensibility”: Rasquachismo is a compendium of all the movidas deployed in immediate, day-to-day living. Resilience and resourcefulness spring from making do with what’s at hand (hacer rendir las cosas). And just as his movies use props from the past to represent a future, the films’ actions cross time periods. The issues covered in “Sleep Dealer” could easily be taken from today’s news headlines —private corporations encroaching more aggressively into peasant lands, privatizing even their water; mass migration to the U.S. border; outsourcing; student debt; normalized drone warfare; militarized police forces; massive data mining and monitoring— but Rivera takes them a stage further, to what might be their logical conclusion in a not so distant future. Blending real current events with fictional narratives has been a staple of Rivera’s work, adding an element of science fiction has allowed him to create memorable situations that he believes help raise his viewers’ awareness. He uses science fiction and metaphors to bring to an audience, in an entertaining fashion, what he considers to be some of the most important issues of our times:
I hope the film was fun, I hope it’s easy to watch and enjoyable, but it is a film that was built intentionally around metaphors about the world we live in. One of the key metaphors is between the exploitation, or capturing of natural resources, which is embodied in the image of water. The main character comes from a little village where the water has been dammed up and we can assume it has been barreled, bottled or taken away. It’s a simple exchange that we know is happening all around the world; a piece of nature, water in this case, which circulates from the clouds, through the rain, down to the ground. Water is an element that cycles all around, but corporations are also somehow able to capture it, bottle it, put a price on it, take it away, etc.
So my character grows up in the shadow of that privatization. And then he’s uprooted, goes into the city, and finds himself in this factory where he connects his body to the Internet and he sends his labor far away, to a robot in America. So he is physically in Mexico, but his labor is in America. And he’s become involved in a type of privatization of his own body. What’s happened to the river is now happening to him. And that’s a very intentional image I’m trying to share with the audience: what we can see more easily around us like natural resources captured, or bottled, or sent away and put a price on.
There’s a kind of robbery that happens in the economy we live in. The labor relationship, when we work in capitalism, and especially when an undocumented person works in capitalism, there’s a similar type of process going on around their body. Their life’s energy is taken and is alienated. So if you build a building – like so many undocumented workers here in New York City that work in construction – they build a building that they can never own. After it’s built, they’re sent away.
Their life energy, sometimes life and death, is put into these structures that they’re not offered any ownership in. And even no path to ownership. It’s a hard thing to get at, this question of the labor relationship; but I think that science fiction, and I think that metaphor, is one of the most powerful tools we have to ask these kind of bigger questions about the world we live in. In science fiction you can take these relationships that are accepted as normal and natural every day and make them kind of strange. That strangeness is important. It’s important for us to take a moment and look at the world and say, “Oh, how did we get here? This is really strange.”
You can download “Sleep Dealer” here.
Luis Marentes is an associate professor of Spanish at the University of Massachusetts Amherst who wants to explore ways in which to communicate and learn through the new social media. His academic work has focused on Mexican and Latin@ culture in the first half of the 20th century. As a member of a Pars-Mex New England family, Luis also has a great interest in the Middle East, and would hope to help foster an international dialogue. Follow @marentesluis.