SF Indie Film: Social Politics and Luke Skywalker as an Immigrant

“This is the American dream. We give the United States what it’s always wanted: all the work without the workers.”

Those are defining words from Sleep Dealer, a politically charged SF thriller slated for March 2009. Directed by Sundance fellow and award-winning digital media artist Alex Rivera, the indie film follows a young Mexican migrant worker who “plugs in” to an online factory to operate a construction worker drone in the U.S. … without ever having to cross the border.

Welcome to the globalized world of outsourced manual labor and virtual sweatshops, remote warfare, and corporate ownership of water.  You can work in a place you’ll never see; help people and build places you’ll never touch. The rich get richer, the poor get poorer,  and the rich won’t even have to watch. The borders may be closed, but everyone stays connected through technology. Who said tech wouldn’t set you free?

State-of-the-art gadgets, action-movie acrobatics and Matrix-cool clothing may still populate the future, but rest assured that this vision may not be for everyone. Or, as Rivera said in an LA Times profile: “You see these futuristic skyscrapers in Minority Report. But I wanted to know: Who is building them? And who is cleaning them?”

A political science major who never went to film school, Rivera addresses the Latino community experience through humor, satire, and metaphor. He recently made an appearance at the NYC seasonal Wired Store and spoke on the inspiration behind his “second world SF” film—10 years in the making—and why audiences should “watch locally, but think globally.”

For more information, check out a preliminary trailer, interview and stills from the movie (“These questions of the future of labor and immigration are really difficult to talk about, so I wanted to see if science fiction was a genre where we could have this conversation.‘”), and a Wired magazine profile. (“We are being sold a false bill of goods, that the more connected we become the more equal we will be.”)

See below for soundbites from Rivera’s Wired Store appearance, as he discussed Star Wars immigrants, Mexican SF, humans vs. robots, and more:

On setting Sleep Dealer in Mexico:

“There’s almost a limitless history of films that talk about the future—that imagine the future. But when I was looking at that volume of work, I noticed that none of them really tell the story of the rest of the world. It’s in cities like London, New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Tokyo … but you never see Mumbai, you never see Jakarta, You never see Mexico City or São Paulo.”

On why Luke Skywalker was an immigrant (aka “From Tatooine to Tijuana”):

“I started, like many people my age, as a bit of a Star Wars fan. I started off with Luke Skywalker as a reference character … to me, [he] has always been an immigrant. If you think about it, he starts off as a peasant farmer in a desert village. His home is destroyed by the Imperial Army and he’s left with no option but to uproot himself and flee. When he goes to Mos Eisley , he runs across the border guards who wants to see [his] identification … he manages to step past the border guards using the force.”

On the difference between Mexican and American SF (television):

“In the 50s and 60s, there was a movement in Mexico of SF, but it was mostly monsters, space aliens and cowboys … In American SF, the ideology is always alien invasion. One way or another, the aliens invade and humans need to react by fighting them out. In Mexican SF, they put a twist on it, which was…a lot of times, the invaders came not to kill, but to reproduce.

They did a lot of these movies where the female space aliens come in search of mates. And basically, the way the United States arranges history in terms of colonialism was to confront the native people, and there was a violent separation of war in the colonization of the United States. But in Mexico, the colonizers came from Spain and started to mix with indigenous people in Mexico. So in the SF, you kind of see that reflected.”

On how far we are from WALL*E:

“One of the things I always feel unsatisfied with, as a bit of a geek, is the role of robots in SF. If you think about movies like 2001 with HAL, Terminator, I, Robot or even Blade Runner … often the thinking about the robot is the same, which is—the robot is smart and will one day want to kill us. One way or the other. And that’s the fear. That’s what drives the narrative. And then therefore we have to kill the ‘bots.

But in reality, robots … most of them are factory workers. That’s what robots are. The word ‘robot’ comes from Czech, and it means ‘labor.’

Robots are getting to be incredibly sophisticated… You’ve seen robots dancing. You’ve seen them climbing stairs. But you haven’t seen them having conversation; they can’t talk [independently] yet; they can’t make judgments. They’re very, very far away from doing that. So there’s a kind of imbalance where the machines that we have today are physically, wonderfully capable … but they’re dumber than … my cat.

So in my film, I propose a world where humans fill that void; they give a spirit to the machine.”

On production design—and not needing it:

[Rivera showed shots of real-life factory interiors and the Mexican border fence—in particular, a dilapidated and hole-ridden portion of it located on a beach. Much of the film was shot in Mexico City.]

“The production design was already done—by the government [referring to the tax dollars used to build the beach border fence] … The world we already live in is bizarre. And if we photograph it the right way, we can collage something together that feels futuristic.”

Fun thought: The main female character Luz is a “futuristic blogger” who connects her body to the network and downloads her memories. Clients can then decide which stories they want to experience, and the higher the number of “hits,” the more money she makes. No more carpal tunnel syndrome! Show, don’t tell.

Food for thought: Intriguing how the film addresses the dangers of the internet—to social equality. One mostly hears how technology is the great equalizer, how everyone will have access to the same information, the same rights; in cyberspace, everyone is equal, regardless of where one lives or what clothes one wears. But there is always another side to everything, eh? The point is not who’s right, but that it starts a dialogue.

Also interesting how Rivera approaches the film from a place more Howard Zinn, rather than pure SF. Due to changing technology (and culture), increasingly more SF stories are being visualized onscreen. As SF authors explored race, gender, sexuality, and politics in print, now filmmakers can deliver their own take on issues with different tools. And maybe some really awesome aliens.

Last thought: Before Sleep Dealer, Rivera was known for his sociopolitical short films (Warning: small screen for videos).

Highlights include Why Cybraceros (a precursor to Sleep Dealer; Rivera set up REMOTE LABOR SYSTEMS for this film, a fake “business” site on outsourcing immigrant labor, one efficient enough to inspire a few people to contact him on the availability of his “product.”); Dia de la Independencia, a “cartoon” response to Will Smith’s Independence Day on a different kind of “alien;”  and my personal favorite, Papapapá, an experimental documentary on two Peruvian immigrants: Rivera’s dad and the potato. Satirical and funny, but also a bit moving. Will never look at a Pringle chip the same again…


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