Science Fiction From Below
On Saturday I got to see a terrific new movie, Sleep Dealer, written and directed by Alex Rivera. It’s lefty science fiction, and deals with immigration, global sweatshops, militarism, and the corporatization/privatization of water resources, among other topics. The degree to which it is only barely fiction is a little scary. I recommend it highly.
Here is part of the interview:
Science Fiction From Below
Alex Rivera, director of the new film Sleep Dealer, imagines the future of the Global South
By Mark Engler
Tapping into a long tradition of politicized science fiction, the young, New-York-based filmmaker Alex Rivera has brought to theaters a movie that reflects in news ways on the disquieting realities of the global economy. Sleep Dealer, his first feature film, has opened in New York and Los Angeles, and will show in 25 cities throughout the country this spring.
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 deeps into issues of immigration, labor, water rights, and the nature of sustainable development.
Rivera’s film drew attention by winning two awards at Sundance–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.
M.E.: How do you describe your film?
A.R.: 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.
M.E.: 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?
A.R.: 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.
ME: How far into the future did you set the film?
A.R.: I started working on the ideas in Sleep Dealer ten years ago, and at that point I thought I was writing about a future that was forty or fifty 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.
M.E.: In what sense?
A.R.: 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.