For director Alex Rivera—whose debut feature Sleep Dealer opened in April to quiet acclaim—the use of collage and found footage to tell a story of immigration, technology and economic survival is only fitting to the subject matter. The sci-fi story concerns a Mexican migrant of the future, who works in a high-tech Tijuana sweatshop where laborers remotely operate U.S.-based machinery while struggling to survive in a strange netherworld between first and third worlds.
Rivera has explored similar subjects in his other work—notably his PBS-screened short documentary The Sixth Section, which followed a group of undocumented immigrants living and working in rural upstate New York who pool their earnings to rebuild their hometown in Mexico. Now with Sleep Dealer (just released on DVD), Rivera offers a unique, visionary social commentary on the intersection between immigration, corporate profit and economic justice—and he talked about all this and more in his interview with MovieMaker.
Noelia Santos (MM): Your work often explores the subject of globalization through the viewpoint of immigrant laborers using all kinds of inventive means to survive. Can you address that subject?
Alex Rivera (AR): I might be one of the few people who quotes [author] William Gibson when talking about the lives of contemporary immigrants. He has that saying like: “Corporations make technology, but the street decides how it will be used.” But the idea that technology and the material of the future is made by corporations usually for a profit motive, usually to accelerate the flows of capital, to put downward pressure on wages, or for militarization—these are the kind of impulses that drive technological development. But when the technology goes into the public, everyday people find all these inventive uses for it.
Immigrants very uniquely have used technology to network—to do everything from reconnecting their families, which are divided by thousands of miles of distance, to revitalizing their hometowns in economic terms by sending tens of thousands of dollars back through money-wiring services and using speakerphones, fax machines and home videos to supervise how this money is being spent in these places they haven’t been back to in sometimes a decade or two. Their families usually connect the first world and the third world. For me, looking at technology and immigration as two sides of the experience of globalization has been very natural.
MM: In terms of your visual aesthetic, who or what are your influences?
AR: The main fountain of images and influences was a portfolio of still photographs that I’ve been taking in my documentary practice. In Tijuana, I’d do seven-second- or eight-second-long exposures in city streets and get these wild washes of color from the neon and incandescent lights—this riot of color in a Latin American metropolis… So those were the foundations of the palate that cinematographer Lisa Rinzler worked from.
It also happened to look like Blade Runner; it also happened to look a lot like Wong Kar-wai’s early films. I love Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. There’s a sequence about two-thirds of the way through where they’re watching a dancer, and there are these multiple exposures of eyes that fill the frame; it’s really a wild effect. In the sequence (in Sleep Dealer) in the factory, when Memo is working himself to exhaustion, putting the contact lens monitors in and out of his eyes, I did multiple exposures with the eyes that were very much inspired by Metropolis.
MM: Sleep Dealer was in the Sundance Institute workshops before it received financing. Can you tell the story of how it got made?
AR: The film would by no stretch of the imagination exist without Sundance. They started to track the project nine years ago when it was a very, very rough and crazy script. It was a provocation when I wrote it, it was a joke. I wrote it almost as a hobby, just to dare somebody to read it. I didn’t think it would ever get made. But going through the [Sundance Feature Film] Screenwriters Lab in 2000 and the Directors Lab in 2001 for me was an incredible experience and the only film school I’ve ever gone through. It was the perfect film school in a month. You get to rehearse six scenes, shoot them and screen them.
[The Sundance Institute] put the film in front of Alfonso Cuarón, who saw what I’d done at the Lab, and he tried to get the film financed. Sigourney Weaver saw it at the Lab and tried to get it financed at Fox. When I had no lawyer and no producer, 20th Century Fox faxed me an offer to make the movie on my home fax machine. It was surreal—bizarre. I came out of the Sundance Lab like a cannonball out of cannon. That’s when I met Anthony Bregman, who was back then at [production company] Good Machine, and he got attached to produce. We thought we’d have it done in six months, and of course it’s not in theaters until 2009.
MM: What have been the challenges, rewards and differences between working in art films, documentaries and features?
AR: Before Sleep Dealer, I’d made about 15 short films, some of them got out into the world, some thankfully never did. With all of those films, I always had a crew of just one person; these were films that were very homemade, often made with stolen or found or borrowed footage, sometimes mixing found footage with animation. So in terms of logistics and what it means to create an image, my short films and Sleep Dealer were night and day. With Sleep Dealer we had a crew of 100 people; most of them were angry at me most of the time. It was profoundly difficult to be creative in public, when I was so used to working in my Batcave.
That said, I think that working with animation and documentary did actually teach me a lot about visual language, in terms of coverage—how you depict a three-dimensional space with two-dimensional images. Because I was editing all of those short films, I think I had a little bit of visual literacy when I went into directing a feature.
One of the things that nobody has really noted is that Sleep Dealer is really a collage film. There’s something like 150 images that are stock or that are found footage. They are folded into the narrative, sometimes seamlessly and sometimes they are bracketed. For example, there is footage that was shot from an Apache helicopter in Iraq and it’s on YouTube—this famous direct footage of the battlefield in Iraq but that looks like science fiction; it’s shot with an infrared camera. We didn’t have the budget to create our own war footage, so we were able to use that. Our lawyers told us it was fair use because it was government-produced footage.
When Memo gets the nodes implanted in his arms, and we go inside his body into his nervous system and see these beams of energy shooting around his nervous system, that’s footage probably made for a pharmaceutical company. It’s footage we bought. So often when we were at a loss, when we didn’t know how to create an image or didn’t have the budget to produce it, we would use stock footage. I love the idea of making a film that’s set in the future but that has these footnotes that tie it to our present. It reminds the audience that we are living in a world today that, if seen from a certain angle, is as absurd as sci-fi, that is as violent and bizarre as Mad Max or as surreal as Blade Runner.
MM: The characters in Sleep Dealer are portrayed primarily in terms of their focus on survival; there is little in the way of an emotional story arc. Was that intentional?
AR: I’m always surprised by how often you see characters in films and you have no idea how they live or what they do or who pays their rent. Our lived experience is so much about how we navigate the economy—how we pay our bills, where we work, how we get from point a to point b. At every juncture, you’re dealing with economics. All three of my characters—their drama is driven by work, labor and struggling with ethics and conundrums that are presented to them through their need to work. It seems normal to me.
Probably the most interesting character in that sense is Luz, the female lead played by Leonor Varela who sells memories. In designing that character, I was thinking of several things—one, I wanted a character with a secret, in a position where she was somewhat potentially betraying my main character, or compromising him or putting him in danger but not knowing it.
And then politically, I thought it was very interesting that the economy and commodification would sneak into our lives so deeply that one day it would be normal to buy and sell memories. And I really think it will happen. I mean, look at Kodak and their slogan: “Share your memories.” The world that I participate in as a filmmaker—which is to capture images and try to make a living from them—is only one degree away from selling memories that are inside our brains. The camera might one day disappear and go inside us, our eye will be the camera at some future date, what we see can always be recorded and shared—I think that’s the destiny of image-making, the destiny of cinema.