GO SEE SLEEP DEALER
Earlier this week, one of my radical writer friends alerted me to the existence of a little-known but award-winning Mexican sci-fi film called “Sleep Dealer”. So some of us went to see it this week — and I was blown away.
The story’s premise is simple. In the near future, the border between the US and Mexico is closed, fenced, and heavily armed. This doesn’t prevent US corporations from exploiting Mexican labor, however, as Mexico is now full of factories in which workers with cybernetic implants do “virtual labor” via a global network, connecting their minds to robots in faraway cities to do the same jobs in construction, nannying, orange picking, etc., that migrants and illegal immigrants used to do.
Memo (Luis Fernando Peña) is an idealistic young man who lives on a milpa with his tradition-loving father and family. The milpa is struggling, however, because a corporation has dammed up the river and now charges the local citizens for every gallon of water. Memo’s father, who once militantly resisted the dam and still hates it, settles now for trying to inculcate his values into his son. But Memo isn’t listening. He dreams instead of escaping his boring, simple life — so he hacks into the global network to hear of distant cities he will never be allowed to visit in person. Unfortunately, this earns him the attention of the US military, and they send armed drones to destroy his house and kill his father, whom they assume is an “aqua-terrorist”.
Memo is thus forced to travel to Tijuana to earn money for his family, where he moves into a slum and ekes out a living working in one of the factories. The locals have dubbed the factories “sleep dealers”, because the workers often grow so exhausted during their 12-hour shifts — using unsafe equipment that gradually blinds and occasionally fries them — that they collapse. Here, though, Memo meets Luz (Leonor Varela), a young woman trying to survive in the city too. Luz is a writer, and to earn money she sells her memories on the global net. Meanwhile both of them are being investigated by Rudy (Jacob Vargas), the Mexican-American soldier who cybernetically controlled the drones that killed Memo’s father. Rudy’s agenda is unclear as he first purchases Luz’s memories of Memo, then crosses the border into Mexico, looking for them.
This synopsis fails to capture just how powerful the film is, however. The messages about globalization and the exploitation of the poor are more subtly done than I’m describing here; that’s just the part that captured my attention the most. But it’s just done so beautifully. When Memo arrives in Tijuana, he needs to have cybernetic implants installed before he can work in the sleep dealers. So he seeks out a “coyotek” — the futuristic equivalent of today’s coyotes, who smuggle (and often prey on) would-be illegal immigrants. When Rudy crosses the border, he speaks with a robotic sentry being cyber-controlled by a customer service representative who speaks with a distinct Indian accent. Memo’s father is murdered on live TV, via a lurid “America’s Most Wanted”-like show (complete with John Walsh lookalike), the host gleefully glamorizes the military strike as “blowing the hell out of the bad guys!” At every level the American appropriation of Mexico’s resources, from water right down to the people’s thoughts, is shown as simply an extrapolation of what’s already happening today, carried to a logical — and chilling — conclusion.
But what makes this message sink in is that it’s so deftly delivered. Since it’s science fiction, special effects matter, and the ones here are mostly CGI. Obviously low-budget, but still well-done. I barely noticed the CGI, though, because the actors are so fantastic — especially Peña, who’s a newcomer to US film (but a veteran in Mexico), and Varela, who’s had a number of parts in US sci-fi TV and film (Blade II, Stargate: Atlantis, Jeremiah). The cinematography is subtly effective — for example, though natural lighting is used in most scenes, the factory scenes are eerily lit with fluorescents and washed-out colors to emphasize the dehumanization of the workers. The movements of the workers as they go about their virtual labor evoke an “exotic” dance, implying a unity between workers in Mexico and those in Asia, Africa, and other parts of the “Third World”. The plot moves slowly and delicately when dealing with its weightiest messages, such as the parallelism between Memo (a Mexican yearning to see the US) and Rudy (a Mexican-American who goes back to Mexico). The bulk of the plot is given over to the relationship between Memo and Luz, as she struggles ethically with her need to exploit him for her own survival, even as she grows to love him. I have to admit I found her story more compelling than that of Memo, the doe-eyed idealist, though it’s Memo who (fortunately) grows up over the course of the story.
All of this is especially impressive given that it defies the standard message of science fiction, fantasy, and other speculative fiction (SF). The most popular fantasy novels are those in which a deposed king is rescued or hidden, and the heroes fight to defeat the evil usurper and put the king back on his throne. The most lauded science fiction stories (and TV shows, such as “Star Trek” and “Stargate”) are written from the perspective of the colonizer who lands on an alien world and masters or helps the natives, rather than the perspective of the natives — who may not need mastering, or want help. Truly progressive speculative fiction, in which these old paradigms are challenged and new ones postulated, is comparatively rare (and becoming more so). So I can’t help hoping that more sci fi like “Sleep Dealer” — emerging from a non-American perspective, capable of looking frankly at issues like racism and classism and imperialism — will eventually help to reboot the genre. This, IMO, is what speculative fiction should be.
So go see “Sleep Dealer”, and help make it a hit.
16 thoughts on “GO SEE SLEEP DEALER”
thanks for the heads up on “sleep dealer”…i will keep an eye out for it.
i hadnt heard of this movie either. thanks for letting me know. i havent read ballard either although i owned his book crash for a year never getting around to it. i am wondering if you saw him as being in the lineage of ‘truly progressive spec fic’? i just read octavia butler for the first time last winter and fell in love with her work. and so am now in search of more spec fic. any suggestions?
actually could we cross post this to raven’s eye? raveneye.org
if you are interested please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org
I’ve only read one of Ballard’s novels (not Crash), but I was impressed with the fact that it was a postapocalyptic novel that wasn’t about trying to reestablish Civilization As We Knew It. Instead it got kind of weirdly metaphysical, and seemed to suggest that humanity would adjust and move on and grow in new ways, not necessarily technological. I see that as progressive (at least the way he did it; not too happy with the way Battlestar Galactica handled it a few weeks back…)
Nobody can top Butler, IMO; besides being one of the few black women writing futurist stories, she was a master of sociological takes on SF — also something the genre has trouble with. But I would recommend starting with the Carl Brandon Society if you like Octavia’s work, because it can help you get in touch with other PoC SF writers. Not all of them write “progressive” work, of course, but honestly? I think our SF does tend to be inherently more progressive. Look at the award winners, heritage month reading list collections, and recommended reading lists in particular.
Oh, and feel free to link to this and post an excerpt, though I’m not the blog owner so I don’t know how she feels about wholesale crossposts. (I think we’re trying to drive up traffic here, so the more you can do to send people this way, the better.)
Exactly my kind of film. I can’t wait to see it. I would love to see one of Butler’s works on film too someday…
The gorgeous Mr Pena was in Sin Nombre. It’s not a scifi film, but an interesting immigrant story.
Yes, he was gorgeous, wasn’t he? I couldn’t tell if it was his puppy eyes or what, but… Whew! ::fans self:: =)
Four of us went to see this over the weekend and we all loved it. I hear it’s having trouble getting traction in the theater, so I’m emphatically telling ALL sci-fi fans I know to go and support it.
Will this come to theaters outside of California? I read about it in Wired and been hopping to go, but haven’t heard any mention of it yet in the Chicago area.
@ LaShawn: I checked the official website, and it looks like it’s just Cali and New York. We Midwesterners seem to be out of luck for now.
As with any limited release, if you don’t live near Los Angeles or New York, the best way to get it into a more general release is to pester any friends, family or impressionable foes that CAN see it in limit release to do so … popularity leads to exposure. I’m pretty sure that’s how all of this works.
The other tactic would be to call the art house theaters in your area and ask about it. It’s ALL about word of mouth at this point.
I always forget how short-sighted everyone can be. after seeing a sneak peak of this movie with the director present (he is a graduate of the same college I go to), I was blown away as well.
By the blatant and inherent racism IN the movie, and the inability of the audience to see it. Contented enough to see a movie loaded with mexicans, they ignore the highly problematic “hypothetical” treatment of already existing problems. yeah right, like a middle class american (regardless of his heritage) is going to go out of his way to save some poor-ass mexican farmer, and why is the only joke in the entire movie at the expense of an older mexican woman?
this movie is highly problematic and hair pullingly boring and plotless to boot. oh yeah and the characters are empty characteratures.
What racism are you talking about? What joke? And why is it beyond the pale that a middle-class American could be tormented by the act of committing murder (uh, remember, he didn’t “save” the farmer, he killed him), enough to seek expiation for it? Man, I get pretty jaded about my fellow Americans sometimes, but I don’t dismiss them all as remorseless sociopaths.
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