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.