Director Alex Rivera Reflects on the "Twisted Existential Shit" at the Core of Sleep Dealer
A prescient, five-year-old, science-fiction thriller that is steeped in love, death, border crossing, maquiladoras, social justice and global connectivity, corporatization and water issues? Hell to the yes you need to see Sleep Dealer, and all the better if that seeing is on a big Frida Cinema screen in Santa Ana Saturday afternoon. That's because you'll be able to applaud/bow before/ask WTF? of director Alex Rivera afterward.
OC Film Fiesta brings Rivera from his New York City home to Santa Ana to participate in an audience Q&A for his film that opens in the not-so-distant future in a different Santa Ana, Santa Ana del Rio in Oaxaca, Mexico.
That's where Memo Cruz (Luis Fernando Peña) shows no interest in his father's corn and beans farm that's suffered since a corporation dammed up the adjacent river. Memo is more interested in tinkering with gadgets that connect him with the outside world, but that tinkering leads to tragedy courtesy of a deadly drone attack. The young man migrates to the sealed-off U.S./Mexico border, where he winds up in a strange factory that digitally connects his body to a robot working on a high-rise project in the States, in the arms of a writer named Luz (Leonor Varela, Arrested Development's original Marta!) and in the face of the young man who had, via virtual reality, connected his body to the deadly drone.
It's a fresh, inventive and thought-provoking work of science fiction that is all the more amazing when you consider it's a small-budget indie that got a limited run in theaters five years ago. The fact that the story had been cooking in Rivera's head since the late 1990s and that he and co-screenwriter David Riker managed to touch on the themes mentioned in this story's opening make more sense when you hear the filmmaker explain it, as he did on the phone Thursday afternoon.
"Really, for me, this film's big ideas came from two passions: science fiction, like the unspeakable Star Wars and Alien and Blade Runner that l loved as a kid, and reflecting on my own family that was so far from those universes," Rivera says from a cafe somewhere. "So, in the late 1990s, I was looking at two big phenomenons: the Internet being born, the creation of a global village and a border-less space. Consequently, a few miles south of Orange County, a border wall was going up. We would see in the digital space a world with no borders but in reality borders were becoming more fixed and militarized. The contradiction produced a nightmare/dream world."
He started forming the vision for his film that found, "Instead of physically coming to America like people like my family members did, who came here to work, people came via the Internet, they telecommuted to America. This nightmare/dream seemed like it could be a real fulfillment of the dark inclinations of this country, which always seems to absorb people's work but does not recognize the humanity of the worker. It was both a prediction in a way but also an active political satire."
"I think the Latino people are people who live deep in the heart of the mushroom. We are a people made up of other people," Rivera observes. "It's a race made up of other races. There is something very science fiction in our core. We're a genetic experiment, an amalgamation, a hybrid."
His project began to gel first as a short film, then a website and finally the feature film that received much love on the festival circuit in 2008. That year Sleep Dealer won the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award and the Alfred P. Sloan Award at the Sundance Film Festival and the Amnesty International Award at the Berlin International Film Festival.
Also that year, Rivera was a nominee for Breakthrough Director at the Gotham Awards and Best First Feature at the Independent Spirit Awards. Many film critics dubbed him a young director to watch. But other than music videos for the likes of with Manu Chao, La Santa Cecilia and Aloe Blacc and the short film A Robot Walks Into a Bar that was released online earlier this year, Rivera's production ground to a halt after Sleep Dealer.
"Well, you know, I didn't deliberately decide to take seven years off," he explains. "I've been working really hard to get new projects off the ground. I had a couple things that were supposed to get made that slipped through my fingers.
"I am also cursed because I want to make films with integrity. If you come to Hollywood to make Latino films, it is very difficult. If you come to Hollywood to make political films, it is very difficult. If you come to Hollywood to make films with integrity, it is very difficult. And if you come to Hollywood to make Latino political films with integrity, well, do the math."
Rivera said he has many projects he'd like to do, including a dream project he's working on "intensely" right now: the true story of Falls City, Texas-born Reies Tijerina, who was the subject of a massive manhunt after leading an armed rebellion in the 1960s and '70s aimed at reclaiming New Mexican land grands to the descendants of their Spanish colonial and Mexican owners. "There are too many good stories," Rivera says. "I am working as hard as I can."
But he might not be done with Sleep Dealer, mentioning "a push toward television." He believes the message underlying his breakout film is more relevant now than it was when he thought it up a decade and a half ago.
"Notions like virtual reality and undocumented immigration might seem very far apart when whispered in the same breath, but they are actually very deeply connected," he says. "Immigrant people are in the U.S. physically but not here legally. At the core of the experience of immigration is being and not being, of being a stranger in a strange land. There is an organic overlap telling stories about immigration and using the vocabulary of science fiction and technology, which have a great set of symbols to let us think about alienation, which is something we all feel in the digital world."
He pauses to reflect on what he just said.
"That's some twisted existential shit!"
OC Film Fiesta presents Sleep Dealer at 3 p.m. Saturday, followed by a Q&A with Alex Rivera at The Frida Cinema, 305 E. 4th St., Santa Ana. Admission is free.
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