Sleep Dealer

Alex Rivera

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Alex Rivera, Sleep Dealer (still), 2008.

Artist Cinemas presents Sleep Dealer
Alex Rivera

90 Minutes

Artist Cinemas
Week #1

June 14–20, 2021

Join us on e-flux Video & Film for an online screening of Alex Rivera’s Sleep Dealer (2008), streaming from Monday, June 14 through Sunday, June 20, 2021.

Sleep Dealer, a cyberpunk thriller set on the US/Mexico border, tells the story of Memo Cruz (Luis Fernando Peña), a young man from Mexico who dreams of coming to the United States. However, in this brave new borderland, crossing is impossible, and Memo “migrates” in a new way—over the net. By connecting his body to a global digital network, Memo controls a machine that performs his labor in America, sending his pure work without the body of the worker.

The film is presented alongside an essay by Charles Mudede written in conversation with the filmmaker.

Sleep Dealer is the first installment of Planet C, a program of films and essays convened by Charles Mudede, and comprising the seventh cycle of Artist Cinemas, a long-term, online series of film programs curated by artists for e-flux Video & Film.

Planet C will run from June 14 through July 26, 2021, with a new film and essay released each week.

Imagining the Past and Remembering the Future in Alex Rivera’s Sleep Dealer
Charles Mudede

In the 1977 space opera Star Wars[1], the Galactic Empire is projected from the British moment in the four-part movement of global capitalism[2]. The lean, owl-eyed, and tight-lipped Grand Moff Tarkin (Peter Cushing) made that projection obvious. The moment Tarkin was on the screen we instantly saw the hologram of the nineteenth century colonial officer who had served Her Majesty in South Africa, in India, in Hong Kong, and more. He was now in space. The Galactic Rebels, on the other hand, had the doe-eyed, rural, all-American youth Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) as its projection. Alex Rivera’s 2008 Sleep Dealer, the product of a thirty-year absorption and digestion of Star Wars, revised the locations and projections of empire and rebellion. In this film, the Grand Moff Tarkins and Darth Vaders are to be found in the US, and the Luke Skywalkers and Han Solos are in Mexico, a representative of the Washington Consensus-structurally adjusted[3] Global South. Rivera, indeed, had this reformulation in mind when he wrote and directed Sleep Dealer. He has said this to me and many others. His film is the real Star Wars.

Rivera’s work places the structure of Luke’s story onto that of Memo Cruz (Luis Fernando Peña), whose eyes and innocence are also pronounced. His father does not farm moisture, but corn and other crops we find on Earth. The American Empire is making life miserable for Memo (and pay attention to that name), his family, village, and region by controlling access to water. The dirt-poor Mexican farmers are forced to pay for water at rates that can suddenly balloon like stock-market prices. The cost of water, indeed, reminds one of Lisa Adkins’ key innovation in her 2018 book The Time of Money[4]. For her, the current moment in capitalism has moved from the entrepreneurial subject described by Foucault in the late 1970s to the subject as speculator. You do not just buy water from a US corporation, you must also guess/bet on its present and future prices.

Empire destroys Memo’s home, kills his father for no good reason, and forces him into the wilderness of a factory system that, by bio-implanted nodes, connects Mexican workers with American robots. In this way, the problem of immigrant labor is solved: The US can get the labor without the brown bodies.

Though Sleep Dealer more or less tells the same story as Star Wars, it has a temporal order that radically departs from the original. In Star Wars, the temporal order of the revolt is clear. Present memories of the Empire’s brutal oppression of galactic subjects are growing in the past; and dreams of insurrection are arriving from the future. The line between remembering (the past) and imagining (the future) is distinct. When Luke Skywalker is flying an X-wing in the Death Star’s trenches toward its vulnerable opening (he will drop a bomb into it), we know his uncle and aunt were murdered by the Empire, we know he is an orphan, and we know that destroying this planet-destroying machine will help liberate others like him from the dead-end future of Empire[5].

With Rivera, the temporal order of the moments of domination and those of resistance are blurred. From the film’s opening sequence to its closing one, we never have a clear sense of what is in the future and what is in the past. The reason for this is Rivera’s saturated images (the shot above the village; the farm; the corn; the dam; the old people dancing to electronica at the bar) are constantly infolding and unfolding an unknown subject (Memo? Empire? the officer of Empire?).

And to complicate matters, a key character in the movie, Luz Martínez (Leonor Varela, the daughter of the famous and late Chilean philosopher of autopoiesis Franscisco Varela), uses the bio-nodes on her arms and back to sell her memories primarily to those north of the Mexican border. She is a memorist.

And there is an aspect of this film that places Luz, not Memo, at the heart of the story. This is made clear by the fact that the uploaded memories—images on the transparent computer screen of her desktop—are much like the images that open and close the chapters of the film: dreamy, saturated, in and out of focus, flapping like flags in the wind.

In this way, Sleep Dealer never really leaves the condition of the virtual as memory or imagining. And as a consequence, it sides with what’s called continuism in the present philosophical debate about mental time travel[6].

The debate has this order of participants: those who believe that mental time travel into the past (PMTT) and into the future (FMTT) use the same mental machinery, and those who believe that the two are completely different. The bad news for both positions is there’s scientific evidence for both positions, which can be called continuism and discontiuism. But the former makes the more interesting case that recollection of the past is as creative as imagining what may happen in time that has not happened yet. It reduces the real or hardened past to the condition of the creative, the open.

The main argument against the PMTT and FMTT correlation is that the former is verifiable. We can say the past has happened and the future has not, and in this sense the past, even if its reconstruction (or simulation) needs the help of the imagination, refers to what has been (it has a referent in the real world). And so the test of truth and error can be applied to the fidelity of this kind of simulation (PMTT). No such test can be applied to the simulation that involves pure imagination: the future (FMTT).

Sleep Dealer sees the future (liberation) and the past (oppression) in the condition of a simulation, or the virtual. This is its deepest and most difficult understanding. In Star Wars, the rebellion was pure candy because it was temporally distinct. George Lucas, the film’s writer and director, saw the two (memory and imagining) as clearly discontinuous. The past (Empire’s destruction of Luke’s family farm) is in one part of time, and the future (Luke blowing up the Empire’s most-powerful weapon, the Death Star, at the end) is in another. The former causes the latter.

But Alex Rivera presents the radical position that revolutionary temporality can only succeed, indeed be authentic, if it never leaves the virtual. The past is in the future, the future is in the past. The images of one haunt the images of the other. The past is filled with ghosts from the future. Memo’s father walks through a trench that’s like the valley leading to the region’s Death Star, the dam. There can be no revolution without the temporal liberation of the imagination.

[1] For complicated reasons—busy parents, culture shock, lack of friends outside my family circle—I reached the age of eight without seeing a single movie. The whole business was a mystery to me. Because everyone was talking about Star Wars that summer (it was 1977), I begged my Maiguru Sana (Auntie Sana, my mother’s big sister) to take me to a screening of it in Wallingford. She agreed. She, too, had never seen a movie in her life, even though she was 33 at the time.

We traveled to Wallingford, we entered the theater, we sat near the front row, the spectacle began, the spectacle ran, the spectacle ended—and I was totally transformed. (My maiguru, on the other hand, slept through the whole thing—even the explosive space battle couldn’t wake her up.)

Now to explain the cause behind my great transformation. Before seeing the movie, I understood the war of Good against Evil to be an entirely Christian one: God versus Satan. The war happened on the ground, in the sky above, and in the immense dark space beyond the moon. The universe was ordered by heaven and hell. So imagine the shock of seeing on the screen a whole different order, a whole different war between the forces of Good and the forces of Evil; a war, furthermore, that made no mention of Jesus, or Lucifer, or the star of Bethlehem, the Romans, the beasts in The Book of Revelation, or the Last Supper. Yet, even in the total absence of the Christian drama of good and evil, I still recognized the drama of good and evil in a faraway galaxy.

In the bright afternoon light of that day, I realized that God was limited and what was infinite was the Good itself, and that the Good could take on different shapes (Obi-Wan Kenobi, John the Baptist, Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, Mary Magdalene). On the bus back to my aunt’s apartment, my head was on fire. The fictional world of that galaxy far, far away changed my real world on earth. I went into Star Wars a Christian and I walked out of it an atheist.

[2] The four movements are Dutch, British, American, and Chinese. As you can see, I break with Ellen Meiksins Wood’s periodization in The Origin of Capitalism (1999) that locates capitalism’s Eden in the seventeenth-century English countryside. One reason among three for my position: the innovation that defined British capitalism—the establishment of the Bank of England in 1694—was developed in Dutch banking (consoles), which at the time of its maturity was to London at the end of the seventeenth century what London would be to New York City at the end of nineteenth century.

[3] Developing countries of the late-1980s turn out to have been the future of Europe on two accounts. One, they were forced to adopt a suite of economic policies that, at the beginning of this decade, were imposed on a number of European countries, most notably Greece. These policies, which formed what’s known as the Washington Consensus (World Bank, US Treasury, IMF), are called Economic Structural Adjustment Programs (ESAP). They required that poor/debt-strapped states slash government services/spending, abandon development programs like import substitution or infant industry protections, and fully open capital flows. These policies did not work. As the Cambridge economist Ha-Joon Chang points out in several books, they actually reversed economic growth.

[4] In 2018, the Australian sociologist Lisa Adkins made a very important contribution to economic thought in the form of her book The Time of Money. The book basically argues that the kind of speculation that occurs in financial markets (betting on the fluctuations of share prices) has been generalized. Because of increased dependency on debt (a financial instrument), ordinary people are forced to speculate on their health, on their sources of income, on their education.

Here is one of Adkin’s many insights:

“…[A]usterity should be understood not as a program of cuts provoked by the financial crisis but as a political strategy through which the economy of debt is being actively expanded and extended, further enrolling the productivity of populations in the generation of surplus value via the movements and flows of money.

Stability, which, in a capitalist economy, can only be achieved through social democratic policies like Social Security, is impossible under these austere circumstances.”

The obvious problem with all this is that speculative risk for the poor and middle-class is not the same as for those on the top.

[5] In the penultimate episode of the opening (2019) season of The Mandalorian, “The Reckoning” (directed by Deborah Chow), Werner Herzog’s character, simply called the Client (he badly wants to get his hands on the adorable baby Yoda), explains, like never before, what the imperial order is all about. The stormtroopers, the Resistance, the aristocratic (Jedi) saber clashes—it all comes down to this: Though the Galactic Empire draws its force from the dark side, it still provides order to an otherwise chaotic galaxy. Do you want pandemonium? Or do you want a galaxy that’s anchored by imperial power?

Near the climax of the episode, the Client says to the Mandalorian (Pedro Pascal), “Judged by any metric—safety, prosperity, trade opportunity, peace—compare imperial rule to what is happening now. Look outside, is the world more peaceful since the revolution? I see nothing but death, and chaos. I would like to see the baby.”

[6] See Kourken Michaelian, Mental Time Travel: Episodic Memory and Our Knowledge of the Personal Past (Life and Mind: Philosophical Issues in Biology and Psychology), 2016, The MIT Press.

For more information, contact program [​at​] e-flux.com.

Film, Labor & Work
Time, Sleep & Dreams, Revolution, Science Fiction
Return to Planet C
Return to Artist Cinemas

Alex Rivera is a filmmaker who’s been telling ground-breaking Latino stories for more than twenty years. His first feature film Sleep Dealer, a cyberpunk thriller set in Tijuana, Mexico, won multiple awards at Sundance and was screened around the world. Rivera’s second feature film, a documentary/scripted hybrid set in an immigrant detention center, The Infiltrators, won both the Audience Award and the Innovator Award at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival and was released in the US in 2020. Rivera’s work has been supported by the Ford Foundation, Creative Capital, the Open Society Institute, and many others.


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