When I first watched Alex Rivera’s Sleep Dealer about four years ago, I wrote an article about it that would have deserved a deeper analysis. That is why I decided to re-watch it today and write a bit more about it.
This film introduces a near future in which a young Mexican farmer facing the militarized privatization of water resources on a daily basis and who see his house destroyed by a drone piloted from the United States. He then moves to Tijuana where he earns in life by working in a sleep dealer, a factory in which the mind and energy of Mexican labor workers are being used through body-plug connections linked to various working machines in the US.
The views of the factory are the most striking images of the film as they fully reconstruct the imagery of the assembly line factory as we currently know it while having the object of production disappeared from this same imagery. The workers’ bodies still endure the physical labor and its repetition, yet the product of their work is situated on the other side of the border. The connection cables are the only link from the laborer to this product and the violence with which they penetrate his body expresses the power of the exploitation. It is probably not innocent that those cables make the workers appear as puppets in a literal illustration of the dispossession of their body.
On the other side of the border, the drone pilot is subjected to a similar dispossession. He is connected through cables in his body just as well, yet his energy and mind are not dedicated to labor, but rather to the accomplishment of military assassination of ‘water terrorists’ i.e. people from the Mexican proletariat trying to survive by stealing water. The nature of his relationship with them through a digital interface allows him to disconnect what he sees and does from his perception of reality.
Of course in this latter case, this is barely science fiction as the United States currently operates targeted assassinations through drones in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen and Somalia. For a lot of reasons, the dissociation of the body and his instrument (in that case, a weapon but in the film’s factory the instrument is a working tool) is profitable on a political and economical level to the dominant power. The film Sleep Dealer only materializes a current situation. The one in which labor is only understood as a flow of energy that needs to be extracted from the body, controlled and maximized through a strategized interface. The more this interface is separating the body from its production, the more the exploitation is effective. In this regard, the invention of the assembly line was the key moment of such movement of separation as each worker became in charge of one piece of an object that he could not comprehend as a whole.
On the contrary, the repossession of the worker’s body and its reconciliation with his production allows a political empowerment and emancipation from the transcendental logic of the capitalist system. In this regard, Naomi Klein and Avi Lewis’ documentary The Take, which shows the physical occupation of a factory in Argentina by its workers and the redistribution of power and wealth to the ensemble of the laborers. The bodies and the factory were so involved together that the former had to physically defend the latter against the police which was trying to take back the factory for its former owner to be able to sell it.
The laborer dispossessed from his body
The Sleep Dealer factory
The Drone pilot
Neon blue wires hang from the ceiling of a dimly lit factory. They connect to metal sockets that have been implanted into a man’s arms. The man stands, moving his arms methodically before him, his eyes glossy and his eyelids heavy with exhaustion.
This was the opening scene of the science fiction film Sleep Dealer, which was screened this Tuesday, Feb. 16, at Pomona College’s Rose Hills Theater.
Sleep Dealer tells the story of Memo Cruz, a man who lives in a small town in futuristic Oaxaca. In this dystopian Mexico, the government strictly regulates water access. The ground is cracked and dusty, the crops are shriveling under the sun, and the nearest water source is a stagnant lake behind a massive concrete dam.
After a devastating mistake, Memo is forced to leave his village, and he travels to the border city of Tijuana to find a job. Like all those who come to the border, he cannot cross into the United States because the country has been sealed off with an impenetrable barrier. He finds himself working in one of the factories known as 'sleep dealers,' where he uses a technological system to connect his body to a robotic machine in the U.S. Throughout his journey, Memo encounters loss, regret, pain, passion, and betrayal.
Digital media artist and director Alex Rivera came to the Claremont Colleges to introduce this award-winning film and to hold an extended question and answer session after the screening. Before the movie began, Rivera told the audience about the motivations behind the film.
Rivera remembered having a “childhood love of science fiction" and recalled “struggling to understand [his] recently immigrated family.” In Sleep Dealer, Rivera channeled his passion for science fiction into an examination of immigrant life by creating a movie he hoped would speak to the current political and economic realities that surround immigration. In creating the film, Rivera attempted to “find a language to describe immediate and real concerns right around [him]," drawing attention to the conflict between being and non-being, noting that immigrants are “asked to be here, work, and be present, but to disappear.”
According to Rivera, the film explores the “globalization of information through the Internet and the globalization of families through mass migration.” Sleep Dealer also addresses xenophobic attitudes, the ethics of labor organizations, the topic of resource regulation, and the consequences of technological advancement. It showcases stunning graphics and striking cinematography, compelling performances by a cast of talented actors, and an electrifying plot.
Many students in the audience reacted to the film with awe. During the Q&A, they had the opportunity to voice their comments and questions. Several students were impressed by the movie’s carefully selected color palette—they referenced the cold fluorescence of the factory scenes and the golden hues of Memo’s home in Mexico. They also asked about Rivera’s filming techniques, and others commended Rivera for his originality and creativity, saying that they appreciated not only his skill as a filmmaker but also his talent as a screenwriter.
“The futuristic atmosphere was a great platform for the immigrant metaphor as depicted by an ‘alien’ labor force,” Ruben Murray PO '19 said. Murray noticed that the film spoke to the “current political situation in the U.S.—with Donald Trump, for example—or in Europe with the migrant crisis.”
Edgar Morelos CM ’16 added, “The film did a great job weaving in U.S. imperialism. It painted a picture of how the U.S. is attacking other countries by taking away their resources.”
Sleep Dealer leaves a unique impression; it instills doubt about the present and anxiety for the future. Rivera’s film provides a stirring warning for what is to come as well as a probing question. He asks his viewers to reconsider the United States’ political and economic choices, and he invites us to examine the consequences of these decisions. Though the dystopia that Rivera creates in Sleep Dealer is fiction, it speaks to concerns that are all too real.