Filmmaker Alex Rivera stopped by my sleepy little town (Amherst, MA) this past week to screen Sleep Dealer, his insanely ambitious debut feature film which debuted at Sundance ’08, and was also nominated for the Grand Jury prize. Unbeknownst to me at the time, Rivera attended nearby Hampshire College, so his visit was also a bit of a homecoming as well. He seemed overjoyed to be back in his old stomping grounds, but the near sold-out crowd at the Amherst Cinema was even more excited to see the film.
Peter reviewed the film favorably last year at Sundance, and I’ve been eager to check it out since then. Set in Mexico in a not-so-distant future, the film is about a young man named Memo (Luis Fernando Peña) who was raised in a quiet farm village, but dreams to move somewhere where he can be more connected to a global network that’s sort of a cross between our beloved Internet and the Matrix. After one of his attempts to hack into the network goes awry, Memo heads to Tijuana where he gets implants to become a “node worker”—someone who connects directly into the network to perform menial tasks as robots in first-world countries. When connected, they wear contacts which fill their field of vision with whatever their remote bodies see, and are also fitted with oxygen masks to help them stay awake. The look vaguely resembles that of a digital scuba diver.
Memo works from a “node farm”— a factory lineup of node workers each connected and and performing their own unique tasks. Rivera doesn’t miss the chance to linger on the surreality of a work environment where everyone is divorced from their physical bodies. The imagery drives home the overarching message in the film, which is the many ways our technology can make us less connected if left unchecked.
Another example of this can be found in the character Luz (Leonar Valera), a writer who sells her memories on the global network. While the technology itself seems like the logical progression from photographs, by doing so she also seems to be commodifying and cheapening her life experiences. The notion of selling your crafted memories (with monologue, and what looks to be minor editing) as stories is something that could take up an entire film. That Rivera managed to weave it into this film’s narrative so organically is cause for even greater praise.
Memo’s story is also intimately connected with that of Rudy (Jacob Vargas), a corporate soldier who remotely flies an armed fighter drone. Rudy is tasked with protecting the water supplies owned by his employer against “water terrorists”, but his first mission ends up making him think twice about the ethics of remote corporate warfare.
Rivera mentioned that he is most interested in speculative science fiction a la Blade Runner, and he certainly succeeds in cramming Sleep Dealer full of interesting and thought provoking ideas. It’s a good thing the film is so rich with depth, because it certainly would never fly as a special effects extravaganza. Made for less than $2 million, the digital effects in the film work best when they’re in the background, subtly implying a future that’s pretty much the same as today—except with nicer displays and a smattering of tech upgrades along the edges of society. (If you loved the aesthetic of Children of Men, you’d feel right at home with this film.) Sleep Dealer’s low budget is hardest to ignore in the scenes featuring the all-CG drones, but anyone who ignores the grander ideas introduced in this film because of some shady CG is probably not somebody you should be friends with.
The film is a labor of love for Rivera, who has been experimenting with the idea of a “telecommuting immigrant” ever since he read a Wired feature on the rise of telecommuting and the “global village” in the late ’90s. He has dealt with immigrant themes across much of his other work, including his documentary The Sixth Section. Surprisingly, Sleep Dealer marks the first time Rivera has had to work with actors and write a script, something which isn’t readily apparent watching the film. Instead of choosing unknowns, he went with lead actors who have a bit of work under their belts. (Chew on this after seeing the film: Leonar Valera was the love interest Nyssa in Blade 2 [?!] and she also had a stint in Arrested Development.)
Perhaps the strangest bit of info Rivera dropped during the Q&A was the potential for a television series based on the film. Apparently the idea was proposed to him at some point after Sundance, but he sounded skeptical about ever translating the film’s themes to television. I could honestly see it working if they just used the world depicted in the film, but I realize that few would ever tune in for the weekly adventures of a telecommuting immigrant.
If you like your science fiction served with big ideas and boundless ambition, you’ll love Sleep Dealer. It shows us the future via the lens of a third world country, which is something we rarely ever get to see, and it puts Alex Rivera on the map for sci-fi directors to keep an eye on. The film received a very limited release on April 19, 2009, so check your local independent theaters to see if you’re one of the lucky few markets to get the film. Otherwise, you’ll have to wait patiently for the DVD release. There’s no news on that yet, but rest assured we’ll be keeping a close eye on it.
/Film Rating: 8 out of 10