Saturday, 17 October 2009

Plug into the new American dream
Sleep Dealer

"Set largely on the U.S.-Mexico border, Sleep Dealer depicts a world in which borders are closed but high-tech factories allow migrant workers to plug their bodies into the network to provide virtual labor to the North. The drama that unfolds in this dystopian setting delves deep into issues of immigration, labor, water rights, and the nature of sustainable development.

"Rivera's film drew attention by winning two awards at the Sundance Film Festival — the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award and the Alfred P. Sloan Prize for the best film focusing on science and technology. Los Angeles Times film critic Kenneth Turan wrote of the movie, "Adventurous, ambitious and ingeniously futuristic, Sleep Dealer…combines visually arresting science fiction done on a budget with a strong sense of social commentary in a way that few films attempt, let alone achieve."

Rivera spoke with Foreign Policy In Focus senior analyst Mark Engler by phone from Los Angeles, where the director was attending the local premier of his movie.

MARK ENGLER: How do you describe your film?

ALEX RIVERA: Sleep Dealer is a science fiction thriller that takes a look at the future from a perspective that we've never seen before in science fiction. We've seen the future of Los Angeles, in Blade Runner. We've seen the future of Washington, D.C., in Steven Spielberg's Minority Report. We've seen London and Chicago. But we've never seen the places where the great majority of humanity actually lives. Those are in the global South. We've never seen Mexico; we've never seen Brazil; we've never seen India. We've never seen that future on film before.

MARK ENGLER: Your main character, Memo Cruz, is from rural Mexico, from Oaxaca. In many ways, the village that we see on film is very similar to many poor, remote communities today. It doesn't necessarily look like how we think about the future at all. What was your conception of how economic globalization would affect communities like these?

ALEX RIVERA: One of the things that fascinates me about the genre is that, explicitly or not, science fiction is always partly about development theory. So when Spielberg shows us Washington, DC with 15-lane traffic flowing all around the city, he's putting forward a certain vision of development.

Sleep Dealer starts in Oaxaca, and to think about the future of Oaxaca, you have to think about how so-called "development" has been happening there and where might it go. And it's not superhighways and skyscrapers. That would be ridiculous. So, in the vision I put forward, most of the landscape remains the same. The buildings look older. Most of the streets still aren't paved. And yet there are these tendrils of technology that have infiltrated the environment. So instead of an old-fashioned TV, there is a high-definition TV. Instead of a calling booth like they have today in Mexican villages, where people call their relatives who are far away, in this future there is a video-calling booth. There's the presence of a North American corporation that has privatized the water and that uses technology to control the water supply. There are remote cameras with guns mounted on them and drones that do surveillance over the area.

The vision of Oaxaca in the future and of the South in the future is a kind of collage, where there are still elements that look ancient, there is still infrastructure that looks older even than it does today, and yet there are little capillaries of high technology that pulse through the environment.

MARK ENGLER: How far into the future did you set the film?

ALEX RIVERA: I started working on the ideas in Sleep Dealer 10 years ago, and at that point I thought I was writing about a future that was 40 or 50 years away, or maybe a future that might not ever happen. Over this past decade, though, the world has rapidly caught up with a lot of the fantasy nightmares in the film. That's been an interesting process.

But, you know, a lot of times we use the word "futuristic" to describe things that are kind of explosions of capital, like skyscrapers or futuristic cities. We do not think of a cornfield as futuristic, even though that has as much to do with the future as does the shimmering skyscraper.

MARK ENGLER: In what sense?

ALEX RIVERA: In the sense that we all need to eat. In the sense that the ancient cornfields in Oaxaca are the places that replenish the genetic supply of corn that feeds the world. Those fields are the future of the food supply.

For every futuristic skyscraper, there's a mine someplace where the ore used to build that structure was taken out of the ground. That mine is just as futuristic as the skyscraper. So, I think Sleep Dealer puts forward this vision of the future that connects the dots, a vision that says that the wealth of the North comes from somewhere. It tries to look at development and futurism from this split point of view — to look at the fact that these fantasies of what the future will be in the North must always be creating a second, nightmare reality somewhere in the South. That these things are tied together.

MARK ENGLER: It's interesting that at the recent Summit of the Americas, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez gave President Obama a copy of Eduardo Galeano's Open Veins of Latin America. This is a book that was written over 30 years ago, but that really emphasizes the same point that you are making now, that underdevelopment is not an earlier stage of development, but rather is the product of development. That development and underdevelopment go hand in hand.

ALEX RIVERA: Exactly. And I think that you can also add immigration into that mix. Because the history that Open Veins lays out is a lot about resource exploitation and transfer from South to North. And today, of course, one of the main entities that places like Mexico export is workers.

MARK ENGLER: There's a quote from the film that says a lot. Memo's boss, who runs this sort of high-tech Mexican sweatshop, says, "We give the United States what it's always wanted. All the work without the workers." Can you describe this concept of the "cybracero" that you have been developing?sleepdealer2

ALEX RIVERA: The central idea for this film occurred to me about 10 years ago when I was reading an article in Wired magazine about telecommuting. The article was making all of these fantastic predictions that, in the future, there won't be any traffic jams anymore, and no one will have to ride the subway, because everyone will work from home. Well, I come from a family that's mostly immigrant, a family in which my cousins are still arriving and working in landscaping and construction. I tried to put them into this fantasy of working from home — when their home is Peru, 3000 miles away, and their work is construction.

And so I came up with this idea of the telecommuting immigrant, where in the future the borders are sealed, workers stay in the South, and they connect themselves to a network through which they control machines that perform their labor in the North.

The end result is an American economy that receives the labor of these workers but doesn't ever have to care for them, and doesn't have to fear that their children will be born here, and doesn't ever have to let them vote.

Science Fiction From Below
Mark Engler | May 13, 2009

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