Film imagines labor’s future

Alex Rivera presented his 90-minute Spanish-language film, Sleep Dealer, at Images on Monday night and followed the screening with a question and answer discussion session. The American studies and Latino/a studies departments sponsored the screening and discussion, which used science fiction to bring to light the future of Mexican immigration, the global economy and the nature of communication. The film, which Rivera dubbed “a labor of love,” won multiple awards at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival.

“There are six billion people in the world and we all have a future,” Rivera said before the film began. “We’ve really only seen … these great metropolises of the world,” including cities such as London and New York, he said, explaining that he hoped to use Sleep Dealer to demonstrate the important role played by other, smaller communities, while also providing an inside look at these communities.

Set several decades in the future, the film chronicled the trials and tribulations of a small Mexican family in Santa Anna del Rio in Oaxaca, Mexico. Memo Cruz, the son of a one-time farmer, is forced, along with his family, to accept the harsh reality that the United States has essentially overtaken the global south – Mexico included – and whittled the land dry of its natural resources. For Cruz and his family, this means paying exorbitant prices at what literally looks like a local watering hole; the region’s water supply is dammed up and controlled by outside higher-ups.

Meanwhile, as Cruz and his father, unable to farm, live under arid and less-than-optimal conditions, those who are better-off in the world, including many Mexican migrant workers, spend their lives laboring every day in factories where they essentially control drones from afar, allowing the United States to reap all the benefits of cheap migrant labor without worrying about housing the actual migrants. The drone technology explored by Rivera reminds us strongly of the 2010 film Avatar, but this scenario plays out at home. From childcare to the military, migrants are employed in the occupations they’d traveled thousands of miles to obtain in the past. Now, by plugging in to the “network,” they can control the robots that do their bidding.

Cruz is tragically drawn into the fray. When his father is killed in a military attack, he leaves Santa Anna del Rio to join the “node-workers.” His designated job: construction worker.

In a classic though plot-necessary boy-meets-girl setup, Cruz and Luz Martínez, a “writer,” join forces, first because she is assigned to write a story about Cruz and, not too soon after, because they fall in love. The romantic component to the story is crucial in that it further allows Rivera to explore the meaning of being “connected” in a modern age of technology and global relations.

Rivera’s film makes use of dynamic characters and is certainly entertaining: It manages to convey a social message without seeming either too preachy or too fact-based. This filmmaker is not afraid to use his imagination. But much of his work was in fact inspired by reality, a reality that he harnesses and expands upon in the motion picture. During the question and answer session that followed the film screening, Rivera explained that the creative piece – which took about 10 years to make – was largely inspired by some documentary work he had done with a small family from a rural village in Mexico.

“You’d turn on a faucet and there was no running water three days a week,” Rivera said of his observations south of the border. “There were dirt roads.” But he also noted that a cell phone tower was one of the first structures visible upon entering the village. Rivera labeled the phenomenon “capillary development,” or “little pockets of technology” with very culturally specific purposes. He used this example to underscore the idea that the culture of the global superpowers – mainly of the United States and mainly rooted in technology and “development” – is being imported to the global south, while the resources and labor of the global south are being exported to the global superpowers. Although Rivera’s film was clearly an extrapolation, he looked toward the current economy – and practices of overseas call centers, outsourcing and offshore drilling abroad – as evidence that the underlying message of Sleep Dealer was nonetheless “coming true.”