I was out of town and missed the first 10 days of this year’s San Francisco International Film Festival, but luckily I made it back to the Bay Area in time to see the premiere of ‘Sleep Dealer.’
I was alerted to the film via a rave New York Times review in which A.O. Scott described director Alex Rivera “showing some of the manic inventiveness of Richard Kelly’s ‘Southland Tales,’ but with a hundred times more intellectual clarity and storytelling discipline.” I’d forgotten that line until going back to look at the Times plug, but bits of Kelly’s wildly entertaining film did pop into my mind while watching ‘Sleep Dealer.’ Both movies are characterized by impressively zippy visuals and caustic social commentary which evokes the bleak dystopian vision of sci-fi writer Philip K. Dick.
Unfortunately, as director Rivera noted in a post-screening Q & A session at the film festival, what started out as satire when he began writing the film (co-written with David Riker, writer/director of ‘La Ciudad,’ an excellent 1998 indie film about Latino immigrants struggling in New York City) in 2000 has moved much closer to documentary realism. Though there are currently no sweatshops in Mexico where workers plug in via surgically-implanted “nodes” to manipulate U.S.-based robots, Rivera, who paced wildly around the stage as festival director Graham Leggat stood stock still near his orbit, pointed out that ubiquitous call centers in India and elsewhere show how far corporations have gone in developing cross-border “outsourcing” to avoid paying unionized workers. Bomber drones in Afghanistan and Iraq remotely piloted by stateside U.S. soldiers provided inspiration for the film’s depiction of U.S. military remote-control aerial assaults on peasants branded “aqua terrorists.”
In response to an impressed viewer who said “the Zapatistas would love this film,” Rivera explained that he was profoundly influenced by “Zapatista thought.” Most particularly, Rivera’s film clearly supports the radical indigenous Mexican movement’s vision of “globalization from below” to counter depradations of global capitalism, ending on a militant note of resistance rare in commercial cinema.
At a time when low-budget Hollywood movies routinely cost tens of millions of dollars, the film’s $2 million budget meant that overpriced computer graphics were not an option for the special effects. Cinematographer Liza Renzler, who also shot the visually arresting Menace II Society, collaborated with Rivera on some ingenous creative ways to circumvent lack of money (among them, filming overhead shots of a small Mexican town using a motorized hang glider). Rivera, whose father is from Peru, explained that he used a Latino “pastiche esthetic,” cobbling together a wide variety of available visual materials, from actual U.S. military footage to images from his own experimental short films.
In response to a question from Leggat about the influence of San Francisco radical filmmaker Craig Baldwin, Rivera said, “I don’t know if he’s here in person, but he’s here in spirit.” Baldwin’s found film and video collage narratives include the hilarious oddball sci-fi opus ‘Spectres of the Spectrum’; his new mash-up/send up ‘Mock Up On Mu’ which takes on the military, Disney and Scientology, played at the festival earlier in the week (I’ll be seeing it as soon as humanly possible).
The two fellow-travellers in dissident sci-fi share a giddy enthusiasm for their material that gives their work a charm lacking in most obscenely expensive Hollywood productions. It’s also much easier to buy a filmmaker’s solidarity with the world’s poor majority if their films do not cost more than some small countries spend yearly on education and health care.
Rivera wouldn’t say what his next film project would be, but told the audience that if anyone had access to financing he’d love to make a prequel or sequel (“or parallel universe”) story to build on ‘Sleep Dealer.’ I hope that happens, and that he continues to develop his critique of global capitalism run amok.
BEN TERRALL is a freelance writer living in San Francisco. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org