Alex Rivera at UCSD

Last week director Alex Rivera came to visit UCSD. I missed the screening of his film Sleep Dealer on Thursday, but managed to make it to the talk and short film showing Friday afternoon.

Sleep Dealer is far and away my favorite recent science fiction film. Set in a not-too-distant future when all water has been privatized and the U.S. Army uses remotely operated unmanned drones to protect corporate assets from terrorists (hrm, that sounds familiar. Maybe the big difference is that in the movie that drone pilots are considered national heroes and showcased on high energy TV shows). Memo, a young tinkerer from southern Mexico moves to Tijuana in search of work so that he can support his family after his father’s death. No longer do those impoverished by imperialism cross the border to the north: in this world Mexican workers remotely operate robotic braceros and nannies located in the U.S. In order to do this they go to large factories called “sleep dealers” where they plug their own nervous systems to that of the global nervous system, the economy. The technology that allows this connection is called a “node,” which is a kind of cybernetic jack, not unlike the “stimstick” from William Gibson’s Neuromancer.

Some interesting moments from the talk:

Luke Skywalker, campesino: One of the UCSD Visual Arts professors mentioned that Star Wars seemed to have a big influence on Rivera. Rivera replied by saying that he always thought of Star Wars as a post-colonial tale: a young farmer, raised on a desert planet, who loses everything to invaders, goes to the heart of the Empire in order to seek justice. I didn’t think of it at the time, but this same Star Wars metaphor is shared by cultural studies pioneer Stuart Hall in his idea of the “Empire Strikes Back,” wherein young people from former colonies go to the country that colonized them seeking a better life.

The future is a foreign country: A professor named Colleen Smith who was in the audience said that science fiction, as a genre, produces a kind of cognitive estrangement in white viewers that is already a common experience among non-white people in the West. That is, we can be in a place and know it, but not feel of it, to not know how it works and therefore what our place is within it.

Why [not] Tom Cruise: When someone commented on Rivera’s use of unknown actors, Rivera said that this is actually something that is structurally difficult to do in Hollywood. Because sci fi requires such a high budget to produce the kinds of scenes and objects that are supposed to represent the glossy kind of future that Hollywood executives want to promote, producers usually require Big Stars in main roles in order to ensure a return on investment. “You need stars to finance the future,” said Rivera.

Mestizo sci fi: At the end of the talk he showed images from an exhibition of Mexican sci fi from the 1960s called “El Futuro Mas Aca.” He pointed out that while American sci fi of this era tended to be obsessed with the idea of foreign invaders coming to kill us and take over our planet, Mexican sci fi offered images of often-female aliens who had arrived to interbreed with our species. How about that for mestizo consciousness!


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