Wastelands on the Border
Image source: From the film Sleep Dealer, directed by Alex Rivera
Mellon Sawyer seminar Graduate Associate Analeah Rosen writes about Alex Rivera’s speculative film Sleep Dealer that members of the seminar watched together with invited speaker Valerie Olson
In Alex Rivera's speculative film, Sleep Dealer, the wasteland-ed environments of Santa Ana del Río and Tijuana become stages where anxieties over militarized globalization, water-politics, and connectivity play out in what literary scholar Lysa Rivera terms “borderlands science fiction.” In “Future Histories,” Rivera writes that borderland sf “embeds tales of futurity in deep-seated narratives of colonial history, labor exploitation, and racial violence, all of which continue to inform contemporary economic policy and labor practices within the region.” Sleep Dealer presents an amplification of border relations, envisioning the logical extreme of NAFTA-era labor politics. Director Alex Rivera commits to a dystopian rendering of this future replete with closed borders, rampant poverty, extreme militarization – a reality that is not unlike our own.
Sleep Dealer begins in the desolated town of Santa Ana del Río and takes place “five minutes from now” – conditions that allow Rivera to embed a classic trans-border narrative within a hyper-tech future – and follows Memo Cruz as he is forced to leave his small town and seek work in Tijuana as a day-laborer. The material conditions leading to his expulsion are recognizable: water, in Santa Ana, is entirely inaccessible due to the presence of a U.S.-occupied dam. The dam and the water reserves are tightly controlled by a private security firm, enacting a long-legacy of shadow enforcement used by U.S. military proxies. Farming – and by extension, survival – have become too expensive for the native inhabitants, thus forcing most of the town to flee and seek work elsewhere. Memo, in this wasted space of a once-thriving rural village, becomes desperate for connection to the booming metropolis of Tijuana. He builds a small radio receiver and listens in on distant conversations between lovers, families, friends – a cacophony of voices reassuring Memo that all is not a wasteland. It is, however, the irony of over-saturated connectivity that Rivera seeks to explore in Sleep Dealer. Memo's radio signal sets off alarms in the U.S. security base and through a violent misunderstanding Memo's home is mistaken for a terrorist cell, and Memo's father a terrorist. What unfolds is a televised drone execution of Memo's father on an eerily-prescient reality TV show, Drones!. The death of Memo's father plunges the family into a financially perilous situation, forcing Memo to find work in the city.
However, because this film is set in the near future, the labor that Memo seeks out, and finally arranges, is virtual. Virtual because, although the border itself has been entirely closed, the U.S. is still in need of a captive, exploitable labor force. This is where the nodes come in – small implants under the skin that connect workers to robots installed in U.S. work sites, providing a reliable stream of labor. The workers’ bodies remain in large Tijuana warehouses, where they are entirely connected to wires and headsets, virtually toiling away as contractors, nannies, and restaurant workers in cities like Los Angeles and New York. As one character remarks, “This is the American Dream. We give the United States what they've always wanted: all the work, but without the workers.” Rivera has stated that the idea of the tele-immigrant is especially captivating because it expresses “the contradictions of a world order in which products freely cross borders that people may not.” The nodes, however, do not simply connect their wearers to a labor-network, they are also capable of directly connecting people to one another. Thus Rivera complicates the notion of connectivity and exploitation. In an overly-connected world, the only means of achieving intimacy is through the very mechanisms that accelerate the conditions of exploitation. This is where the character Luz becomes instrumental in the narrative framing of Sleep Dealer.
Luz, an aspiring journalist, records and sells her memories on an online memory- trading platform, TruNode. Of course, she meets Memo on a bus and decides that his humble intelligence and perseverance might make good story material. Luz uploads a video of Memo, and after a few days of silence finally receives a purchase from none other than Rudy – the Chicano drone operator (also a node-worker) who remotely executed Memo's father. Rudy's unrelenting guilt and need for closure compels him to pressure Luz to obtain more of Memo's stories. Luz, desperate for cash – for she is also subject to the grueling economic reality of unequal border-relations – begins spending more time with Memo and a love affair ensues. At this point in Sleep Dealer several stereotypical narratives have been deployed – the normative love affair between Memo and Luz, the entangled struggle between hero and villain, the untrustworthy and ultimately duplicitous female, and perhaps the most stereotypical, although nonetheless affecting, the redemption narrative of Rudy. Rudy, having gained as much information about Memo from afar is finally compelled to atone for his sins in person. What follows is a journey southward in search of redemption – not only for Rudy, but for the audience still living in the present reality of border wars and individual political impotence.
The final scene of Sleep Dealer delivers a moment of temporary catharsis and triumph over the ultimate evil: corporate-military power. Rudy hacks into the security firm's drone network and flies a drone into the Santa Ana dam. Shots of water breaking through the dam recall the earlier scene of Memo's father ineffectively throwing small pebbles at the dam in frustration and mourning. Shortly afterwards, Memo receives calls from his remaining family informing him of the miracle that has happened. It is perhaps the ultimate trope: a melodramatic story arc ending in triumphant retribution.
Rivera is of course entirely aware of the clichés he is working with, which is what makes this intensification of both trans-border labor-relations and sci-fi cum tele-novellas that much more satisfying in Sleep Dealer. Playing with these conventions, rather than simply criticizing them, allows for the film to exist as both a political warning and as entertainment. Because the narrative structure of the film is so recognizable, the audience lingers in the many ghostly absences/wastelands the film revels in – of water, political power, labor – and the frenetic saturation of connection. Although there is a momentary triumph against the dam, and the characters have found peace (Memo and Rudy are no longer enemies, and Luz has skipped town to pursue her writing), Rivera does not let the audience off easy, as the lingering unease of global development haunts the film's ending – although Santa Ana has water once more (although nothing indicates the private security firm simply won't patch the dam and continue its militarized surveillance of the site), Memo must stay in Tijuana, must continue struggling to survive.