The next step for cyberpunk movies is to include more of a global perspective, says Sleep Dealer director Alex Rivera. He's looking for the "cyberpunk of the South" or "cyberpunk of the developing world," and hopes his film will become the first branch of a whole new direction. Rivera came to San Francisco and showed clips from Sleep Dealer, plus some of his earlier short films, and we got a chance to ask him about his cyberpunk inspirations. Images, clips and trailer below. Sleep Dealer is the story of Memo, a young Mexican from Oaxaca who travels to Tijuana to become the new kind of migrant worker — one who stays in Mexico but exports his labor to the United States, via cybernetic implants. He meets Luz, a young journalist who sells her actual memories online via her own cybernetic implants, and she installs "nodes" on his body in a very Cronenberg-esque scene. A third character in the movie is Rudy, the cyber-pilot of a drone plane, who destroys Memo's home and kills Memo's father after Memo mistakenly hacks into some military transmissions. The scene where Memo first connects to the telepresence network and his consciousness is suddenly inside a robot worker on a construction site in the United States is really breathtaking. You get a sense of how weird it must be to move your arms and legs and have a robot's limbs respond. Memo makes the mistake of looking down and realizes he's hundreds of feet above the ground — or, rather, his robot body is. Rivera explained that the original inspiration for Sleep Dealer came from a film in the Prelinger Archive called Why Braceros? A 1959 industrial film created by the U.S. government, Braceros explains the need for Mexican immigrant workers on American farms. Here's a clip: Rivera saw that film a dozen years ago, and it inspired him to start thinking about questions of borders and technology — a big point in the original documentary is that farm technology has allowed many tasks to be automated, but some jobs still require "stoop labor." So Rivera made a fake documentary of his own, 1997's Why Cybraceros?, which features a satirical look at the idea of Mexican labor telecommuting over the border via cyber implants. It includes funny images of cartoon Mexican robots floating through the trees, and Mexican workers' arms getting taken off so the arms can cross the border, leaving the armless Mexicans behind. It's pretty hilarious, with the fake chart with a bar showing "American labor force sophistication" and a downward line showing "available farm labor." And Mexican workers controlling robots using a Commodore 64 and an Atari joystick. It's "as simple as point and click, to pick." Rivera even put up a fake Cybracero website, which explains the program in detail. "The rhetoric of that industrial film was very trippy, in terms of the abstract nature of labor," says Rivera, so he wanted to play with the idea of disconnecting labor from people. In 1997, when he made his short film, everyone was obsessed with the idea of the "global village" and borders coming down, but the U.S. was also building a wall along its border with Mexico and there was a new anti-immigrant movement.
He's been working on Sleep Dealer since then, and it's taken over a decade to complete. He finally got financing in 2005 and shot it in 2006. The film showed at Sundance, to enthusiastic reviews, and you can read our own review here. Rivera also showed a couple other short films: a ten-minute set of documentaries about the border between the U.S. and Mexico, made as part of the PBS online series Borders, and a bizarre Independence Day-esque short about the U.S. being invaded by giant flying sombreros with chili pepper rayguns. The Borders films explore the idea of borders being closed to humans, but open to imports and services. The hard part of making Sleep Dealer, for Rivera, was turning his big-picture economic story into a more personal story of two people and their relationship. "I like to think about systems, economics, the big picture, millions of pepope. To think about two people... was a real struggle for me." And these questions of the future of labor and immigration are really difficult to talk about, so "I wanted to see if science fiction was a genre where we could have this conversation." When Memo first logs into the telepresence network, you can see a huge list of languages that he chooses Spanish from. The idea, says Rivera, was to show that you could hire telepresence workers from Indonesia or China or wherever — whoever is cheapest. It's a "race to the bottom enabled by the network." Sometimes the workers get blinded by a power surge, but it's an acceptable loss.
My friend who went to the event with me had one question about the future world of Sleep Dealer: is it ever really going to get cheaper to use robots to replace individual human workers? After all, robots have already replaced workers in a factory setting, but that's usually one robot doing the work of twenty humans. Here, you have one robot doing the work of one person. Is that ever going to be cost-effective? Rivera says yes, and he actually thinks this is a possible future economic model:
Have you seen those videos of the Honda robots that can dance and play soccer and walk up and down stairs? We're in a place where robots can do, physically, most of what we can do. They can dance better than I do... but they can't make any judgements. Artifiical intelligence is not anywhere near where the robot [can think for itself]. The robot mind is like a grasshopper mind. [So I foresee a] future where the mechanical part of the robot is very sophisticated and cheap, but it needs a spirit, somebody to make a judgement, someone to communicate. [And that portion] is outsourced. I think that's actually a business model. Not today, but in a few years. i have a feeling that's potentially a reality. We are seeing that ambivalence, where that mechanical is very sophisticated, but the artifiical intelligence is retarded.Already, you have the weird juxtaposition of high technology and squalor, where ipods and other shiny gadgets are made by people who live in shantytowns, says Rivera. "It's a scifi nightmare more vivid than Mad Max." Rivera is working on two new projects right now. One is a true story based on an article in Wired magazine. The other is a science fiction film that starts in the Andes in a gold mine, with the last remaining gold seams. The gold mine will turn out to be connected to nanotechnology, because the best nanotech often uses gold fibers "because gold is such a good conductive metal." Sleep Dealer is being released in theaters in the U.S. in March 2009.