Feathered Bastard

Alex Rivera, Director of Sleep Dealer, Talks Sci-Fi, Immigration, and Robot Doctors Controlled from India

For anyone interested in immigration, sci-fi or both, director Alex Rivera's debut feature Sleep Dealer is a must see, a futuristic and at times Blade Runner-ish trek through a world where America's borders are sealed and all labor is imported electronically from "workers" hooked up via wire in Mexico.

I watched it last night for the first time and was quite impressed with Rivera's social commentary on the impact of global capitalism and his creepy vision of Tijuana as the "city of the future," where high-tech maquiladoras employ Mexicans who drive cabs, do construction, and take care of American children by operating robots thousands of miles from where the work is actually taking place.

The film, which has earned plaudits from critics at the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and elsewhere, will be screened at Tempe's Madcap Theaters Saturday night, August 7 at 6 p.m. as a fundraiser for the local civil rights organizations Puente and Tonatierra. Ten bucks gets you in the door. Rivera will be present to introduce the film and discuss it afterward with moviegoers.


Rivera, 37, is from New York, the child of a Peruvian immigrant dad and an American citizen mom. He's done several short films and documentaries, all dealing with immigration in some fashion. Indeed, his Sundance award-winning feature actually grew out of a faux 1997 documentary about something he called the "cybracero" program. Sleep Dealer is the realization of that early vision.

I caught up with him at Phoenix's Fair Trade Cafe this morning to discuss his film and why he's in town. The following are excerpts from that interview. You should definitely check out the film on Saturday, which is well worth the sawbuck entry fee.

Did you envision your film more as a glimpse into the future or a metaphor for the present?

One of the great conundrums is that all science fiction is made in the present but sort of imagines the future, so there's always, whether it's Metropolis up to Minority Report, people thinking about the present but projecting it into the future. That's all you can do. You can't visualize the future. You can only imagine it from the point of view of the present.

That being said, Sleep Dealer is a film that I really wanted to connect deeply to the present, not have it be an abstract future, not just have it the white hats and the black hats, the good guys and the bad guys, not have abstract themes, but have concrete metaphors, concrete allegories that connect to today's politics, and to history. This is a future that really could be five minutes from now.

Where did the idea of "work without the workers" come from?

In the '90s, when the Internet was a baby, there were all these big dreams about it. People would talk about virtual reality, and one of the big catchphrases of the time was telecommuting, the idea that we could all work from home.

I thought about my cousins, who still are coming to this country to work in landscaping or in restaurants. I'm thinking, what if they could work from home, when home is Peru and their jobs are working in a restaurant in New York City? I came up with this idea [that] they could do it over the Internet and control a machine that could do their work busing tables, or trimming hedges. The "telecommuting immigrant."

So I made this short film which is satirical and humorous, and proposes a solution to the immigration crisis, the telecommuting migrant or the "cybracero."

The Bracero Program brought Mexican workers to the U.S., it started in WWII. They brought workers here to work in the fields because all the American men were involved in the war...They left their wives home as collateral, and then after the harvest was done, the guys were sent back. So there was no chance of them voting, or becoming citizens or part of American society. That program lasted for 20 years.

So my satirical, futuristic labor program was called the cybracero program. The idea of just importing pure labor, while leaving the worker on the other side of the border. The inspiration came from [that].

Sounds like something the nativist group FAIR (the Federation for American Immigration Reform) could get behind.

(Laughs.) Some of my friends have called me the thirteenth monkey. That's the movie [12 Monkeys] that has a time loop in it. [They're joking] that maybe I was sent from the future back to the present to plant the idea in people's minds, so that it actually happens.

Does the technology for such a scheme already exist?

Well, I was on a technology and film panel at Sundance with Rodney Brooks, the [co-founder] of iRobot, that's the company that makes those circular vacuum cleaners and they also make a lot of military robots. He's at MIT and one of the nation's foremost thinkers about robotics.

He saw my film. And he told me that he can give me the phone numbers of three companies right now that are doing this. That's not science fiction. He says there are companies absolutely who are going to do this. And it's starting off in the medical industry. I actually met one of [the entrepreneurs]. Their business plan is to build operating rooms here in the U.S. with robotic surgical arms that will be controlled by doctors in India to compete with medical tourism. Because so many people fly oversees to get cheap operations.

You've done a lot of work dealing with immigration, even before this film. Why does the subject fascinate you to such an extent?

[When] I started dabbling in film, hunting around for a subject, I think a good first place to look for anybody is at home. The things you know the best. So I started to look at my family,and there I found immigration. [Note: Rivera's dad is a Peruvian immigrant.] I realized it's not just my family, it's millions and millions of people dealing with similar stories. And I started to feel like in immigration you could see the future of this country.

How did you get hooked up with Puente and Tonatierra?

We have many friends in common. I've also been following it in the news. Because I've been making films about immigration for 15 years, I've made a lot of friends along the way who are lawyers that work on immigration, activists that work on the issue, as well as other artists...So it was through that network I was aware of what they were doing out here...I'm definitely here to learn and to listen. That's the main reason I came out.

How closely are folks that you know following what's happening in Arizona?

In my community of Facebook friends, it seems like I get a report in the morning, in the midday, and in the afternoon in terms of what's happening here. I think the eyes of the nation are focused here right now. That's definitely the feeling I've gotten everywhere I've traveled.

What did you think when you learned that Puente's leader Salvador Reza had been falsely arrested by the MCSO?

For what it's worth, when I was standing up taking pictures in New York, I was tackled by the NYPD and hauled to jail. This was during one of the protests against the Iraq War in 2002. When I saw him being arrested, it reminded me of what I've gone through. That's power, when they can just come grab you and haul you off. That's scary.

(You can meet Alex Rivera this Saturday, August 7 at Madcap Theaters, 730 South Mill Ave. near University Drive in Tempe, for the 6 p.m. showing of his film Sleep Dealer. Admission is $10, with proceeds going to benefit Puente and Tonatierra.)

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Stephen is a former staff writer and columnist at Phoenix New Times.
Contact: Stephen Lemons