Alex Rivera Looks Back on the Legacy of His Sci-Fi Magnum Opus, Sleep Dealer

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Alex Rivera's science-fiction flick Sleep Dealer was released nearly a decade ago, but it remains relevant for its radical vision of a future world we now live in, with increased border patrol, digital culture, natural-resource containment and drone warfare. It's an amazingly prophetic film, especially when you recognize the concept was developed in the mid-'90s. Now, as the film picks up even more interest, especially within the Latino community, I chatted with Rivera to discuss the legacy of the film, as well as how to keep the sci-fi genre fresh and inclusive for indie filmmakers.

OC WEEKLY: I know you didn't mean many of the nightmarish elements of the film Sleep Dealer to be accurate, but I guess it retains the film as prescient for the times, so what do you wish people can take away from the film the most?

ALEX RIVERA: Sleep Dealer is a strange film because it's now almost 10 years old, but it was projecting into a future that we now partly live in. When you see it today, it looks partly like science fiction and partly like documentary, and it explores a lot of different themes that rotate around one axis, and that axis is what happens to the world when we have concrete, sealed borders, but [also] a digital culture that transcends borders. The film is a kind of speculation on globalization gone mad.

You devised this in the late '90s, and it was released in the mid-2000s, and now it's finding a resurgence, so maybe as the years go along, it will be more and more relevant, especially now, as we live in the times of Trump in which immigrants are villainized and whatnot.

It's a very powerful rhetoric around immigrants coming to the U.S. to steal jobs and a political culture that tries to pit one working person—maybe he was born in this country—against a person who was born in a different country.

By using science fiction and imagining this future world, one of the things I'm trying to illustrate is that the enemies of working people are not working people, but a system in which it tries to exploit people in a never-ending variety of ways until people get their shit together and fight back. The enemy is not the foreign-born worker; the enemy is an amoral capitalism that seeks nothing but profit. It doesn't care about people's livelihoods or people's well-being, and so science fiction has been a wonderful, creative space because it lets you play out those scenarios and insert characters and let them run with it.

This film speaks a lot to the Latino community for its themes on border politics, immigrant labor, etc. I read an earlier interview with you in which you explained that science fiction is in the genetics of Latino culture, but I don't really recall a lot of Latino cinema that dives into the science-fiction genre. Why do you think that is?

I think the blockages that prevent marginalized groups from imagining the future of science fiction are multiple. One is imagining a future that we can finance. If you think of science-fiction films, you think about Blade Runner or Ghost In the Shell, these kinds of hundred-billion-dollar-plus films because your future world is about skyscrapers and flying cars and big action set pieces. If that's what you think science fiction is, then you're not going to make one as a young independent filmmaker from a marginalized community.

In the case of Sleep Dealer, I took a different approach, which was, "I'm gonna look at the future from the point of view not of a cop or Tom Cruise, but from an outsider." So once you start to look at the future from that point of view, you can imagine low-budget science fiction because you're starting your character—in this case, my character's from Oaxaca, Mexico, in the countryside, so there aren't fantastic skyscrapers or flying cars. So that's shifting the POV of what the future is, who's gonna take us through it, and that's the project of decolonizing our own imaginations and hopefully reinvigorating the genre of science fiction because it needs to be rebooted.

How do you foresee Latinos in science fiction and how the genre can retain the relevancy of Sleep Dealer?

Well, I think it's important to know that Latino science fiction does not mean, in my mind, putting Latino actors in the same old science-fiction texts. What it means is looking at the unique lived experiences and historical journey of the Latino community, and then thinking, inventing and imagining ways of saying something meaningful about that history and those experiences through this genre. And it has to start with a belief that Latino history has something to contribute to the national conversation. We need to start with that discussion of who we are and why are we here and where do we come from—those types of deep reflections—and once you have a grip on some of those answers to the big questions, then you can spin out new science-fictional tales that can riff on that.

Science-fiction films with radical points—for instance, Metropolis, The Day the Earth Stood Still, Children of Men—are reflecting a political point of view, but throughout the course of cinema and history, there's very few times when films have impacted real change. As a filmmaker, you can crystalize a solution or truth on a global issue through art, but as a filmmaker, how do you work to effect change?

To be a socially committed artist, you have to be a bit dumb or crazy, and I hope I'm the latter. It's the wrong struggle to make the world better, creating a culture that is visionary, guided by values of justice and equality that are as diverse as the country we live in, that is an essential battleground, and I do see the stakes in that process as life or death. The work of being a filmmaker can, in the long term, save many lives as a doctor, but it's a slower work, a work with less concrete and immediate results. But over the years, we can build a better culture and a better and more just society.

For more info on the film Sleep Dealer and Alex Rivera, visit alexrivera.com.


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