Future Frontera

Memorable science fiction is more about the present than the future. One reason for the lasting popularity of Star Trek is that the original series reflected what viewers were living through in the 1960s, namely the Cold War, the civil rights struggle, and the counterculture movement.

In the same way, Sleep Dealer, an independent Mexican film directed by Alex Rivera, has much to say about the current immigration debate. It’s set in a time when the U.S.-Mexico border is miitarized, natural resources such as water are controlled by corporate interests, and “aqua-terrorists” are hunted with robot drones. Sound familiar?

One such drone destroys the farm of a young man named Memo (played by Luis Fernando Peña), who then heads north to seek his fortune. But in this version of the future, there’s no need to cross the border. You can become a virtual laborer in Tijuana and work at a construction site in San Diego. A coyotek installs nodes on Memo’s body (which allow him to plug into the network) and gets him a job at the Cybracero Corporation. One of the most frightening images of the movie is the cyber-sweatshop where Memo and his compadres work, wires protruding from their bodies, as they manipulate the machinery in a dream-like trance. The pay is good, but many of the workers lose the ability to sleep, and with it their sanity. Rivera (who also wrote the screenplay) implies they can also lose their souls.

There is a satiric, corrosive humor at work here. One of the cyber-workers remarks: “They want the work done, but not us. So now we give them what they want!” The coyotek smuggles Memo across the virtual border, and the name of the company is a play on the Bracero program of the 1950s which brought thousands of Mexican workers to the U.S. You’ll find sly references to Willliam Gibson’s novels, movies like Blade Runner, and social networks like Facebook gone berserk. But what resonates is the gritty, hi-tech nightmare that Rivera envisions on the border, fantastic yet all-too-familiar.

Sleep Dealer generated some buzz when it came out last year, winning the Amnesty International Film Prize in Berlin and the prestigious Alfred P. Sloan Prize at Sundance. It’s distributed by Maya Cinema, the company started by film visionary Moctesuma Esparza, and widely available in DVD. Don’t miss it