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The Future Is Now in Sleep Dealer

Although it's set in a future where people connect to the Internet through nodes implanted in their flesh, the world of Alex Rivera's Sleep Dealer is remarkably similar to the present. The border between the U.S. and Mexico is sealed, but Mexican workers can cross over virtually with the help of a "coyotek," a back-alley surgeon who implants the costly nodes at cut-rate prices. Privatized water, already a reality in parts of Africa, South America, and Southeast Asia, has made its way to southern Mexico, where struggling campesinos pay top-dollar to irrigate their tiny patches of land.

Inspired as much by Bicycle Thieves as Blade Runner, director Alex Rivera and co-writer David Riker set out to create a plausible vision of the future while keeping a safe distance from contemporary political debates. But as they worked on the script over a period of several years, they found that reality kept catching up to them. "We would joke that we set out to write a science-fiction film, but by the time we were done, it was a period piece," Riker says.

Sleep Dealer, which took Sundance's screenwriting award and the Alfred P. Sloan Prize for science-oriented films, follows Memo (Luis Fernando Peña), a bulky country boy, from his family's rural village to the big city of Tijuana, where he finds work in one of the human factories that have replaced the industrial economy. In these "sleep dealers," so called (in English) for the exhaustion they mete out, node workers connect their nervous systems to robotic machinery on the other side of the border, exporting their labor without moving their bodies.

A guileless stranger in a strange and unforgiving land, Memo is taken in by Luz (Leonor Varela), a struggling writer who makes ends meet by selling her memories on the web. Business has been slow, but she acquires a loyal customer in Rudy (Jacob Vargas), an American drone pilot who stages long-distance air raids from a San Diego skyscraper. Rudy is used to following orders and not questioning his targets, but when he discovers that the "terrorist" he incinerated was Memo's father, the consequences of waging virtual war begin to weigh on him. The technology that has isolated the movie's characters begins to bring them together, erasing the boundaries it once enhanced.

Rivera began working with the ideas behind Sleep Dealer in the mid-1990s, inspired by the confluence of economic liberalism and cultural xenophobia. He points out that 1994, the year that NAFTA dissolved the trade barriers between the U.S. and Mexico, was the same year that the U.S. began Operation Guardian, whose anti-immigration measures included the beginnings of the border wall. "If we live in a world where businesses can travel freely across borders and build factories wherever they want, but then walls are put up so the workers can't move, the picture isn't pretty," Rivera says. "It's like there's one type of freedom that's being celebrated, and another that's being taken away."

From the beginning, Rivera has been fascinated by border crossings. Papapapa, produced when he was a political-science major at free-form Hampshire College, retraces his father's immigration from Peru, and his 2003 documentary The Sixth Section explores the bonds between a group of immigrants in Newburgh, New York, and their hometown of Boquerón, Mexico, two communities that function as one despite the thousands of miles between them.

Raised by his Peruvian father and his mother, a native of New Jersey, in upstate New York, Rivera says his childhood inspired his lifelong interest in cultural overlap. "On one floor, my mom would be watching Days of Our Lives, and on another floor, my dad would be watching Dos Mujeres, un Camino on Telemundo, so my house was cross-border just from one room to the next," he recalls. "It's sort of an absurd place to grow up."

Rivera's culture-clash upbringing expresses itself in the hybrid texture of his films. Sleep Dealer's futuristic tableaux are bathed in incandescent pinks and greens, and Rudy's bombing missions are realized with a heavy dose of computer animation. But the scenes where Memo and his father tend to their patch of beans and corn could come straight out of Salt of the Earth.

"A lot of people that are interested in political films or making films on social issues are very committed to a documentary form," Rivera says. "Through all my work, I've been trying to play with the form, mix in animation, mix in a sense of humor, mix in an element of surreality, in order to talk about this, at times, very violent, very intense, very absurd reality that we live in." (Rivera's fondness for mashups is also expressed in a weakness for puns: virtual workers are "cybraceros," while a sign in a dive bar offers access to "Live Node Girls.")

The mixture of science fiction and social realism has a political component as well. "We felt that most science-fiction films have ignored the question of unequal social development," Riker says. "They presuppose, whether you're watching Minority Report or Blade Runner, that the new gadgets and flying vehicles exist all over the planet. But we see that history is not that way, that quote-unquote modernity has never been distributed equally." In Sleep Dealer, "the idea is that one part of the world is living in science fiction, and the other part is living the way it has for hundreds of years."

Riker's 1998 film La Ciudad was a neorealist chronicle of the lives of Spanish-language migrant workers in New York City, but he has been living in Oaxaca, Mexico, for the last three and a half years, where he has experienced the onset of Sleep Dealer's water crisis firsthand. Like many components of the movie's speculative future, the corporate control of southern Mexico's water supply is only a slight interpolation from the world of today. The "aqua-terrorists" accused of sabotaging the water conglomerates' operations were inspired by the people of Cochabamba, Bolivia, who successfully protested Bechtel's control of their municipal water supply. The virtual labor of the sleep dealers is merely a physical analogue to the Indian workers who staff call centers and read X-rays in Bangalore and Hyberabad. Neural interfaces of the kind Sleep Dealer envisions are still a ways off, but scientists have succeeded in connecting computers to the brains of paralyzed patients, allowing them to control the device with their minds.

"People who knew about the script would email us articles as the script started to come true," Rivera says. "A lot of the predictions that the movie puts forward, 10 years ago they were political satire. It's been fascinating watching the world catch up with my absurd nightmare scenario."

Mixing present and future, realism and speculation, Sleep Dealer embodies what Chicano artists call rasquachismo, a kitchen-sink aesthetic in which objects are thrown together without regard for their intended use. "I, and millions of other people like me, live in a kind of hybrid cultural space," Rivera says, "a little tiny slice of America that has no border, that speaks both languages, that looks at the world from a point of view that's from the South and from the North. Sleep Dealer tries to do that."