The sci-fi future of 'Sleep Dealer' is built by grunts

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PARK CITY, Utah -- The future of Alex Rivera's ambitious "Sleep Dealer" looks like other dystopian movies set decades ahead: gleaming skyscrapers, pilotless drones, pervasive surveillance. But where those other movies might focus on Harrison Ford's or Tom Cruise's problems, Rivera is far more interested in the struggles of Mexico's migrant workers.

The Sundance Film Festival is typically anchored by low-budget movies exploring personal issues of identity, relationship and emotional well-being. Rivera's "Sleep Dealer" is all that but offers something rarely seen in Sundance works: high-tech special effects.

In some ways an independent, Spanish-language version of "The Matrix," "Sleep Dealer" posits that the technology that helps make the world a global community will also enslave its less fortunate. In Rivera's story, laborers in Mexico are able to connect electronically to work sites in the United States via wires plugged into nodes installed on their bodies. So when a worker moves his arm, for example, a robot arm moves 2,000 miles away.

"Human labor will never disappear," says Rivera. "For every technical advance we see, there is someone, somewhere, who is building it -- a ghost in the machine."

The 34-year-old Rivera was born in New York to a Peruvian father and American mother. "My father was constantly reminding me that the world is very divided," Rivera says.

As a documentary and experimental shorts filmmaker, Rivera's previous work focused on the growing gulf between the haves and have-nots, particularly as divided by the Mexican-American border. His PBS documentary "The Sixth Section" looked at how immigrants from Boqueron, Mexico, established a satellite economy and government for their small hometown from where they lived in Newburgh, N.Y. In Rivera's short film "Why Cybraceros?," he began to work out the ideas for "Sleep Dealer," creating a reverse maquiladora that imported not cheap manufactured goods but electronically-transmitted migrant labor.

Rivera started writing "Sleep Dealer" in 2000, and spent several subsequent years developing the screenplay with the help of the Sundance Institute. He says he was inspired to write by two apparently contradictory millennial trends: the promise of the Internet creating a global village, just as politicians vowed to build more impenetrable borders.

"I never dreamed it would get made," he says. It wasn't just that he was a first-time filmmaker. It was more that the movie looked like it would cost $40 million or more.

As his "Sleep Dealer" script tells it, water has become as hoarded a global resource as gold. In a small Mexican pueblo perishing in the resultant drought, a young man named Memo (Luis Fernando Peña) rigs up an antenna to eavesdrop on satellite communications. Memo's unauthorized surveillance is discovered by a global conglomerate and it orders the operator of a drone (Jacob Vargas) to destroy Memo's home, forcing Memo to leave for Tijuana. Once there, he meets the alluring blogger Luz (Leonor Varela) and begins work at a factory, where he is remotely building an American high-rise.

Even with hundreds of visual effects shots, some 500 extras for crowd scenes and nearly two months of photography, Rivera was able to make "Sleep Dealer" for just $2 million, according to people familiar with the production (Rivera didn't want to discuss his budget). He often had to resort to low-tech solutions to his high-tech plot: Luz's interactive blogs are populated with clips from Rivera's earlier short films, and overhead shots of Memo's hometown were filmed from a motorized hang glider.

As much as Rivera admires the-future-is-grim movies such as Alfonso Cuarón's "Children of Men" and Ridley Scott's "Blade Runner," he says they present a very narrow view of the real world. "They still have as a protagonist a European man. I wanted to make a movie where the protagonist is a real outsider. The genre plays with themes of labor but never looks at the world beyond the confines of cities.

"You see these futuristic skyscrapers in 'Minority Report,' " Rivera says. "But I wanted to know: Who is building them? And who is cleaning them?"

john.horn@latimes.com

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