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Border drones and labor-bots: Alex Rivera's prescient 'Sleep Dealer'

Science Fiction (Movie Genre)MoviesMexicoFictionSleep Dealer (movie)Star Wars (movie)Sundance Film Festival
The sci-fi cult hit 'Sleep Dealer' gets a rare airing in downtown L.A.
What do 'Star Wars' and 'El Norte' have in common? Alex Rivera on the films that shaped 'Sleep Dealer'
Alex Rivera, director of the sci-fi film 'Sleep Dealer,' shares five of his most important influences

Filmmaker Alex Rivera had the idea for his sci-fi movie "Sleep Dealer" back in 1997. At the time, he envisioned a future in which wars were fought via drone, the water supply was privatized by corporations and eager young workers at the Mexican border would no longer cross into the U.S. for jobs. Instead, they would plug their bodies ("Matrix"-style) into digital systems that power labor-bots in the U.S. that did everything from build high-rises to pick oranges.

The film, which Rivera released in 2008 after working on it for more than decade, bears a striking resemblance to our troubled present, one filled with the realities of drone warfare and privatized water supplies (though — not yet, at least — workers studded with digital ports).

"It's been really strange," says Rivera. "It's a wonderful-horrible feeling when your dystopia comes true."

Since its premiere at Sundance in 2008, where it won a screenwriting award and the Alfred P. Sloan Feature Film Prize, "Sleep Dealer" has maintained a devoted cult following even though it has been difficult to actually see. The film had problems getting into theaters when its distributor went out of business. Since then, it's been kept alive through independent screenings and the word of mouth of devoted film geeks.

But the movie is getting a new lease on life, showing on the big screen at the Downtown Independent in Los Angeles through Thursday. And, through the efforts of the Sundance Institute and a grass-roots network of the film's supporters, it is now available for streaming on Amazon and iTunes. Other outlets are in the works, too. (The Washington Post has a good story on the effort to revive it.)

I can understand the enthusiasm. "Sleep Dealer" is a wondrous thing to behold, with its saturated cinematography, its unnervingly realistic vision of the future, its singular focus on U.S.-Mexico border politics and its supremely taut storytelling. (It is only 90 minutes long.) All of this is made more remarkable by the fact that the film's budget was a paltry $2.5 million.

(For the record, Times film critic Kenneth Turan had high praise for "Sleep Dealer" in his original 2009 review, and he made the film his Critic's Pick this week.)

In the years since it premiered, Rivera has been interviewed relentlessly about the film's social and political significance. He even made it into Foreign Policy. But I was curious to learn more about Rivera's cultural inspirations — the films, books and other cultural phenomena that have shaped his world view.

The son of a Peruvian father and American mother, he grew up outside New York City and recently moved to Los Angeles. His influences range from blockbuster movies to obscure performance art. And in making "Sleep Dealer" he sought to portray a part of the world that gets little screen time in film.

"Science fiction films have been capable of imagining little green men and alternate realities, but it's had a very limited view of the world," Rivera says. "In movies, London has a future, New York has a future, Los Angeles has a future. To a smaller extent, Tokyo has a future. But there is no Mexico City, there is no Lima."

"Sleep Dealer" helped change all that.

Here, Rivera, who is now in the early stage of working on a feature film about Chicano activist Reies Lopez Tijerina, shares with me some of the works that he considers instrumental to his practice:

"Star Wars" (1977)

"I saw 'Star Wars' at a drive-in as a kid in upstate New York," recalls Rivera. "I was like 7 years old and had a near-religious experience. It's a magical, wonderful retelling of what is essentially the ancient hero's journey: the humble young man who goes on to do great things. As an adult, I've also come to see the story of Luke Skywalker as the story of a migrant. The movie is very important to me because with 'Sleep Dealer' I wanted to make a film that took experimental risks but that could still resonate at the popular level. I wanted it to retain a certain Hollywood science fiction myth. The prime example of that comes from 'Star Wars.'"

"El Norte" (1983)

"This is Gregory Nava's immigration masterpiece, an extremely well-made film with a really solid telling of the hero's journey. For me, it was an important movie growing up because it was a film about the experience of immigration. Media is such an important way of how we understand our past and this film is important to me for that reason. The hero's-journey aspect makes it more like 'Star Wars' than you would imagine.

"In the '90s, I did this strange experiment where I intercut scenes from 'Star Wars' with scenes from 'El Norte.' The first act of both films are basically identical. The main character in 'El Norte' is a Guatemalan coffee farmer. Luke Skywalker is a moisture farmer. The main character in 'El Norte' wants to go somewhere better but his family won't let him because of the harvest, which is the same as Skywalker's situation. And there's the Imperial Army, which in 'El Norte' is the right-wing Guatemalan military. Some of the dialogue is even the same. The son is like, 'I want to go somewhere better.' And the dad says, 'Son, you have to stay for the harvest.'"

"Brazil" (1985)

"I think I saw this move for the first time in college and I was just blown away by the fact that Terry Gilliam could make a film about fascism and bureaucracy that could be a visual treat and completely funny and completely surreal and an absolutely accurate portrait of what it's like to deal with the DMV! It's one of those aha films that makes you realize that the genre of science fiction is really capable of doing anything. Plus, it lines up with my view of the world. The world that we're born into, we're told is normal. But it's highly constructed and unnatural and doesn't need to be the way it is. The idea of looking at the systems around us and finding them strange and alien, that's what I'm interested in."

"El Naftazteca: Cyber-Aztec TV for 2000 AD" (1994)

"This is a [video and performance] work by the performance artist Guillermo Gomez-Peña and it is this visual romp through the treasure trove of transborder iconography. He's creating culture clashes and images that are pulled from south of the border, north of the border, interpretations of the south by the north and vice versa. To see it was really inspirational and liberating, to see someone playing with that language with such freedom and delight. When I was thinking about making 'Sleep Dealer,' I had the idea of taking the hero's journey of 'Star Wars' and 'El Norte,' the play in Terry Gilliam's 'Brazil,' but adding the aesthetic of Guillermo Gomez-Peña."

"Forever Peace" (1997)

"Science fiction literature is not like science fiction film in that in the literature, you see authors of diverse backgrounds from all over the world. 'Forever Peace' is a book by Joseph Haldeman that takes on the issue of a drone war. You have a soldier based in Houston, Texas, who goes into a digital factory and connects his brain to 10 other soldiers. Together they make a hive mind that controls a giant war machine fighting an insurgency in Costa Rica. It's a fascinating book. When I landed at the Sundance Institute in 2001, an advisor there recommended I read it."

"Natural Born Killers" (1994)

"Oliver Stone's film threaded the needle between Hollywood industrial feature filmmaking and the experimental desire of the artists I was looking at. A lot of artists are in one camp or the other, but this was a film that disobeyed convention, but could also play at a big movie theater at the mall. For me, its power was in the editing. The film showed what a montage could be. American film editing has become very conservative, a series of continuity cuts that make the viewer feel like they're watching reality. But in other areas of filmmaking, like the Soviet school, you'll have cuts that are more about associative power: an image of ants running up a hill will be followed by an image of people running up a bunch of stairs in New York.

"'Natural Born Killers' was interesting because it was cut both ways. You'd see people. You'd see a rattlesnake. You'd see blood going down someone's face. You see editing that's not normal in American film. That was something I wanted to achieve in 'Sleep Dealer.' There are scenes where the main character is reflecting on where he comes from. But then I will cut to an image of the inside of his vein. It's about creating an associative, surreal montage."

"Sleep Dealer" is showing through Thursday at the Downtown Independent, 251 S. Main St., downtownindependent.com.

Twitter: @cmonstah

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