Alex Rivera: 2021 MacArthur Fellow

On January 29, 2021, the International Documentary Association published an essay Alex wrote about Claudio Rojas, protagonist of The Infiltrators, and his deportation after the premiere of the film.

You can read the full essay here.

On the podcast, 'Tech Won't Save Us,' host Paris Marx is joined by Alex Rivera to discuss his 2008 film Sleep Dealer and how it imagined exploitative technologies being implemented in a future Mexico of hardened borders and limited migration.

Listen to the conversation here.

On August 10, 2014, NPR aired an in-depth interview with Alex Rivera covering drones as "The Meme of our Times"

This debate was first published online by The Washington Post and in print.


ALEX RIVERA: Can you explain why you used your review of this show to make a pronouncement about the entire concept of “Latino Art”? This is the sentence I’m referring to:

“…an insoluble problem: Latino art, today, is a meaningless category.”

It seems to happen over and over again: when a group show like this one is mounted, critics attack the fundamental notion of looking at the work as a group. Why?

The problem is that, while critics raise doubts about categories like “Latino Art,” there’s never any discussion of the absence of that work in show after show that keep groups like Latinos on the margins or excluded entirely from the American conversation.

For example: the 2012 Whitney Biennial featured exactly zero Latino artists. How can that be a survey of “American Art”? Where is the questioning of that absence in publications like the Post? It seems like the absence of Latino artists is normal, not newsworthy, but the organizing of our presence causes questions about our existence.

PHILIP KENNICOTT: I called Latino Art a meaningless category for two reasons. First, I think it is so broad as to be meaningless. The exhibition I was reviewing includes work by artists of Cuban, Puerto Rican and Mexican descent, but it might just as well include artists who claim heritage in almost all of the countries in South and Central America. And is all of this art in fact linked by some, essential unifying thing? Is the art made by a Cuban exile educated in Paris somehow similar to street art made by a Mexican American in Los Angeles? Maybe, but then tell me what the link is. As a critic, you hear over and over again that artists don’t want to be pegged by their nationality, language, ethnic group or sexual identity.

The second reason I said it was that the curators seem to argue exactly that: They insist that the show isn’t about labeling, isn’t about defining anything essential about the category of Latino art. As a critic, you begin to wonder why bother doing these group shows if the ultimate intent (and a desirable one) is to place the focus back on individual artists, and individual art works, rather than the group identity that everyone seems to resist? Make the show more specific, perhaps more limited, with a more specific argument, and use the best art and artists from this larger show to make a point you can stand by.

I take your point about the absence of Latino artists in many exhibitions, though one of the best shows I’ve seen recently that attempted to negotiate the idea of group identity, the National Portrait Gallery’s “Hide/Seek” devoted to gay artists, had a robust representation of art by Latinos.

AR: I should have mentioned in my first message: I wish you’d had a better time at the museum!

Reading your comments, a question comes to mind: do you find “Latino Art” meaningless, or do you find the notion of “Latino” meaningless?

I ask because I understand your observation that there’s a lot of diversity within the imagined community of “Latinos.”

But what big grouping of people doesn’t embody diversity and conflict within itself? I imagine you regularly review shows in museums of “American Art,” but never spend the review space critiquing the concept of “American” (which is more broad than the category “Latino”).

Why attack categories like “Latino” when they’re used pro-actively to organize a show, while other vague categories are left unquestioned?

In terms of what unites Latino artists, well… It might be aesthetics that one way or another trace back to distant Spanish and Indigenous influence. It might be an engagement with questions of assimilation in the U.S. or of migration or exile. It could be none of these.

But one strong glue that unites the community of Latino artists I know is awareness that we’re still “outsiders” in spaces which claim to speak for the nation.

Isn’t long-standing absence enough ‘glue’ to make this survey of Latino Art at the Smithsonian a worthy endeavor?

PK: You ask if it’s Latino art I find meaningless, or “the notion of ‘Latino’” art? Emphatically the latter, and if that wasn’t clear in my review, then I should have been more careful. I say that I enjoy much of the art on display, only I wish it was better presented, better contextualized, better focused. What I grappled with is the use of the label—“Our America: The Latino Presence in American Art”—in a show that doesn’t seem to want to define or even accept the validity of that label. You give one possible avenue for finding meaning in the category: the origins of some of the visual material in the “distant Spanish and Indigenous influence.” I think that would be an interesting way to focus an exhibition. And I gave some other possibilities: One would be looking at the wonderfully provocative and visually incisive Chicano art movement of the 1960s and 70s.
But you see, we’re already whittling a big category down to smaller ones. That’s a healthy thing, I’d argue, forcing people to think about real connections, not simply labels. Again, I point out that my problem with the label has a lot to do with how many Latino artists resist it… just as many African-American artists resist being labeled, and so too gay artists. I remember a recent show in Washington called “30 Americans” which looked at three decades of recent African-American art. Again, the catalog writers went through the usual contortions of saying that they didn’t want to imply that these artists had anything in common, stylistically, or in terms of content or approach, simply by virtue of being African American. Very similar to the intellectual contortions surrounding the Smithsonian’s Latino Presence show. The difference, however, is that the content of “30 Americans” at least had a common sensibility, and tone, and often stylistic approach. Whether or not that was because the artists were African American, or because the show was derived from a single private collection, didn’t matter. The important thing was a sense that the show had a focus.

That was what was lacking in the Smithsonian exhibition.

Let me ask a question: Do you think it’s enough that a major show of Latino art at the Smithsonian can only be summarized as having included a lot of art by Latinos? Is rectifying the absence you speak of all that matters, or should it have also been a good show in traditional museum terms (ie., with focus, an argument, a scholarly component)?

AR: Apologies for any confusion.

To be clearer, you explained that you find “Latino Art” a meaningless category because it is broad (encompassing Chicano, Cuban, Puerto Rican artists, etc.). So, I was curious if it was not “Latino Art” that you had trouble with, but the simpler notion of “Latino” as an identity category at all.

That’s what I meant to suggest – that perhaps you don’t find grouping together tens of millions of people in this way helpful. And if you don’t see the commonality of experience in that imagined community, then of course a survey of our artistic output would seem a fruitless exercise.

And so… Do you think “Latino” is a useful category for thinking about people? Does it illuminate anything about history or just confound? If not, what do we call ourselves? If so, why can’t we have something called “Latino Art”?

Finally, in answer to your questions about whether this particular show at the Smithsonian need be a “good show” as well as a simple manifestation of presence… Well, of course I’m going to say “yes.” The trouble is that the metric of “good” is always subjective and questions of “quality” are hard to get at when the argument is shifted to whether or not the fundamental organizing concepts have any merit or not.

If your review had contrasted the qualities of this survey of Latino art with others, focused on the strengths and weaknesses of particular aspects of the show, and accepted that there needs to be a presence of something called “Latino Art” in a museum like the Smithsonian, I probably wouldn’t have gone nuts on Facebook.

Juan Sanchez, "Para Don Pedro," 1992, is one of the pieces on view at the Smithsonian "Our America" exhibit. Copyright 1992, Juan Sanchez.

Juan Sanchez, “Para Don Pedro,” 1992, is one of the pieces on view at the Smithsonian “Our America” exhibit. Copyright 1992, Juan Sanchez.

PK: As a demographic category I’m sure Latino is useful, and I don’t want to suggest that the category isn’t meaningful for people who embrace it. As a gay man I find the category “gay” meaningful even though many younger people who might have embraced it a decade ago now reject it. Identity is deeply personal and something we construct. But demographic categories aren’t necessarily useful for explaining habits, preferences and behavior. “Latino shoe preference” or “gay driving habits” don’t really refer to useful ideas, do they?

The question posed here is whether Latino is useful for explaining something interesting about art. Here’s some text from the “Our America” catalog essay by Carmen Ramos: “Latino art is an imperfect composite construct that traditionally refers to the art of Mexican Americans/Chicanos, Puerto Ricans, Cuban Americans, and more recent arrivals such as Dominicans. These demographics, however, are by no means settled or clear-cut. Nor can one term adequately shoulder the divergent histories it seeks to contain. I use the term ‘Latino art’ not as a sign of cultural essence but as an indicator of descent, shared experience, and art historical marginalization.”

So from the very beginning we have curatorial acknowledgement that the category is “an imperfect composite construct” and isn’t “settled or clear cut” and it can’t “shoulder the divergent histories” it seeks to contain. And the work it is supposedly able to do–indicator of descent, shared experience and art historical marginalization–is in fact so broad that it can’t really focus the exhibition. The last two of these subcategories in the definition Ramos offers–shared experience and art historical marginalization–are more useful than the first–indicator of descent–and they would offer grounds for a better exhibition. But it would have to be much better focused than what is on display at the Smithsonian.

As for your argument that “there needs to be a presence of something called “Latino Art” in a museum like the Smithsonian” I would agree… if we insert one word: “Great.” There absolutely needs to be a better representation of great Latino art in a museum like the Smithsonian. And many of the pieces in the exhibition I reviewed qualify for that inclusion.

AR: Well, for starters, I agree that “Latino shoe preference” is not a meaningful category, so we can at least agree on that!

(But I bet readers involved in marketing shoes would disagree.)

I also agree that how we identify is a personal decision. And that “Latino” is a big, unruly way to categorize people. Like “American.”

But here’s the rub: the review you wrote sparked heated reactions among some Latino artists, in part, because we’re very used to reading reviews like it.

Take this review in The New York Times of “Phantom Sightings,” an exhibition of post-Chicano art, which starts with the line: “Is it time to retire the identity-based group show?”

Or this mention in The Times of a show featuring an American majority – women – whose work somehow rarely makes it into American museums: “Sexism is probably a good enough explanation for inequities in the market. But might it also have something to do with the nature of the art that women tend to make?”

Time and again reviews of shows that feature work of “minority groups” (who are in many instances majorities in cities where the art world thrives, but whatever) become the occasion not to talk about the show at hand, but to attack the fundamental gesture of curating shows featuring our work.

We read these reviews against the backdrop of media silence which has for decades enabled our erasure from spaces like museums and galleries.

In your review, you took an angle which attacked not the show at hand – but the entire meaning of “Latino Art” as a category. A good portion was also spent on critiquing the general direction of the institution of the Smithsonian.

I don’t doubt the show is imperfect, and worthy of critique. I don’t doubt that the show is broad in nature. But in the future I hope to read reviews that take me into the show, on the show’s terms. Reviews that help me understand what specifically works and what doesn’t. And reviews that accept as a starting point that presenting the work of people who inhabit big categories like “Latino Artists” is vital and urgent.

Alex Rivera is a digital media artist and filmmaker, best known for his Sundance award-winning feature film “Sleep Dealer.” His film and digital media work has been screened at The Berlin International Film Festival, the Museum of Modern Art, The Guggenheim, The Getty, Museum, Lincoln Center, PBS, and other international venues.

Philip Kennicott is chief art critic of The Washington Post.

First published by The New Inquiry

Disney Land

image by Imp Kerr

New Inquiry Senior Editor Malcolm Harris talked with artist Alex Rivera. The writer-director of the 2008 sci-film Sleep Dealer, Rivera has been working with drones since the 1990s, when he piloted a small quad-copter called the Low Drone back and forth over the Mexican-American border.

Malcolm Harris: You’ve been a drone fanatic for so long, using them both as subject and medium, and it seems like the wider culture is finally catching up to you. As a very early adopter, why do you think drones have captured the public consciousness in the way they have?

Alex Rivera: The drone is the most visceral and intense expression of the transnational/telepresent world we inhabit. In almost every facet of our lives, from the products we use, to the food we consume, from the customer service representatives around the planet who work in the U.S. via the telephone, to the workers who leave their families and travel from all corners of the world to care for children in the U.S., in every aspect of our lives we live in a trans-geographic reality. The nonplace, the transnational vortex, is everywhere, ever present.

The military drone is a transnational and telepresent kill system, a disembodied destroyer of bodies. As such, the drone is the most powerful eruption and the most beguiling expression of the transnational vortex. The reason it has become a pop-cultural phenomenon and an object of fascination and study for people in many different sectors is that it is an incandescent reflection, the most extreme expression of who we are and what we’ve become generally.

MH: You make the comparison across a lot of your different work between drones and the issue of immigration, but also immigrants themselves. Whether in Sleep Dealer or with Low Drone, what about that specific comparison or metaphor attracts you?

AR: My fascination with drones emerged from a political satire project that I began in the 1990s. I wanted to explore the dissonance I saw occurring between the discourse around immigration — one of xenophobia and increased territoriality — and the discourse around digitality — one of border-lessness and increased free flows. In the ’90s the Internet was in its infancy, but the rhetoric around it was expanding rapidly. Among a whole slew of new metaphors, I was attracted to the concept of telecommuting, because, in its evocation of the idea of working from home, it oddly resonated with the immigrant experience — the experience of leaving home to work, in a particularly acute sense.

At the same time that the borderless space of the Internet was being developed and celebrated, the government of the United States was building a wall for the first time to separate the U.S. and Mexico. And so there was this dream of connectivity, this dream of a global village, and simultaneously a material reality that borders on the ground were being militarized and fortified. Peering into that contradiction, I came up with a nightmare/fantasy of an immigrant worker who stays put in Latin America and, via the Net, transmits their labor to a worker robot in the U.S. The pure labor crosses the border, but the worker stays out. At first, the idea was meant as a critique of Internet utopianism and the politics of immigration. But over the years it has become a reality as call centers emerged in India, for example, and we began to see the first incidents of service-sector labor being transmitted around the globe. Transmitted transnational living labor was born, or what I like to call the first generation of telemigrants.

Separate from explorations of the subject of literal telepresence, I think, in all of my work, in one way or another, I’ve been looking at  transnational networked subjects. The millions of undocumented workers who are physically present but whose political body is denied by a legal regime, occupy a place in my imagination very close to the call-center worker or the drone pilot. The military drone as a traveler headed from the global north to the global south is a kind of mirror image of these other histories that have brought human energy from the south to the north. The transnational space is circular, with flows in and out of the U.S., all of them disembodied and disfigured in complex and fascinating ways.

In my film Sleep Dealer, the main character is a worker in Mexico who beams his labor to the U.S. over the Net and works in construction, erecting a skyscraper in California. The secondary character is a drone pilot who is physically in the U.S. but who sends his energy to the global south in the form of a military drone, expressing his teleprescence in the destruction of buildings. So there are buildings being built up in the U.S. by disembodied immigrant laborers and buildings being torn down in the south by disembodied soldiers. The film is a myth of sorts, simplifying and visualizing these oddly symmetrical global flows.

MH: The drones act as a sort of accelerant — late capitalist cyborg merchant ships that speed up those flows?

AR: Yes, telepresent/transnational exchanges, including the military drone, accelerate and exaggerate already existing neocolonial exchanges. But the new systems don’t replace the pre-existing ones — they exist in parallel and intermingle. And so an enduring neocolonial exchange, like a worker wandering north, through the desert, seeking work, losing their political rights in the process, encounters the 21st century telepresent present when they find themselves under the gaze of a Global Hawk drone, patrolling the skies over the U.S.-Mexico border, inevitably wandering through both American and Mexican airspace. The body on the ground called “illegal,” tracked by a satellite-guided disembodied being, which itself is given legal authority to cross all borders.

MH: So with the automation of both service sector labor and military labor projected abroad, what do we risk being unable to see? I’m thinking of your Cybracero project specifically, the imagined workers you mentioned in Sleep Dealer, the imagined spectral cab drivers. What do we miss when we droneify these kind of service work relations?

AR: I don’t think we even have the vocabulary to talk about what we lose as contemporary virtualized capitalism produces these new disembodied labor relations. We don’t have a way to conceive of what those relationships are, what they could be, what we want them to be. The broad, hegemonic clarity is the knowledge that a capitalist enterprise has the right to seek out the cheapest wage and the right to  configure itself globally to find it. I believe that there has been for the past maybe 40 years a continual march in which capital, confronting a labor movement that, with all its flaws, was somewhat successful in lifting wages and creating space for a middle class in this country, has been relocating the nodes of production outside of the legal space — the nation — in which the labor movement has been operating, organizing,
and imagining itself.

Capital responds first with a mechanical move, moving factories outside the U.S., outside the reach of the national labor movement. And then after moving factories out, the next wave is to move information labor out, a digital move epitomized by the iconic call center but that now involves countless varieties of information labor. Amazon’s Mechanical Turk is one powerful example. The remaining tranche is manual service labor — cooking, cleaning, construction, driving taxies, etc. Coincidentally, this last segment of labor that capital has not managed to morph into the transnational space by moving the jobs site into the global south is now largely preformed inside the U.S. by migrants who travel from the global south.

The next stage in this process, and I’ve been told by roboticists at M.I.T. that this prediction (which started as satire) is true and in progress, is for capital to configure itself to enable every single job to be put on the global market through the network and its increasingly sophisticated physical outputs.

In terms of resisting these transformations… If a taxi company has a way for someone in Jakarta to drive the taxies in New York, and it’s going to reduce their costs tenfold, I don’t even know the language to talk about what’s lost for the passenger. And I don’t know how we organize a rhetoric or critique against the idea of more telepresent labor, because the power of the profit motive, of business ontology, is so extreme and universal that its march into every sector of our lives presents itself as a natural truth.

For what it’s worth, the union that serves the subway operators here in New York City managed to defeat a city initiative to replace them with computers by invoking the spectre of security, arguing that a human worker can be helpful in a disaster in clear ways that a computer can’t. Maybe that rhetoric could save the job of our hypothetical taxi driver from a remote operator.

MH: When you’re dealing with a cab driver in Jakarta, it’s not only that you don’t have to talk to them; you don’t have to talk to the cab driver where you live whose place they took. These small externalities that make up so much of interracial or interclass relations don’t even occur.

AR: In discussing the menace of these types of imagined alienated labor, I don’t want to romanticize the present state of affairs. Most of my taxi rides today are experienced with both the driver and myself on the phone, talking to telepresent individuals. Customers at a restaurant today often don’t see the workers — and they’re physically there, maybe 10 feet away — but nonetheless they can become phantoms or invisible presences. The threat that telepresent labor presents — that there’ll be no contact between the person eating and preparing food, that a certain social proximity or contact will be lost — has already happened! The erasing has already occurred.

Returning to the theme of the military drone, a lot of the first round of critique was that they make killing antiseptic or like a video game, or that it’s hyper-alienating for the pilots. But what I tried to depict in my film and what I believe is happening is something not that simple. The drone has produced a third type of military sight. Drone vision is not like the infantry’s vision that sees the opposing forces with their eyes, and it’s not the sight system of the airforce pilots that never really saw what was below while dropping bombs from thousands of feet up, often at night. The drone pilot has a type of vision that no military actor has had before, that of lingering, of observing over extended periods of time, and doing so with absolutely no threat to oneself.

This gaze is unidirectional from the air down; it’s safe, it’s calm, it glides through time. You hear stories of these pilots watching a single house for literally days on end. And these cameras are so high-resolution they can see what’s being cooked for dinner, and they can see if it’s a boy or girl down below. The drone pilot is connected to reality in a way that is very different — not necessarily more or less, but different — than the infantry who’s on the ground with a platoon, whose life is on the line. Some of these virtualized transnational interactions can create new levels of connectivity, exchange, and vulnerability. I’ve been reading stories about drone pilots having versions of PTSD, seeking out chaplains and psychiatrists to deal with the emotional blowback of performing and witnessing these horrible acts so close and sticking around for the aftermath. This is a visual phenomena that no one in the infantry or air force has ever experienced.

MH: Drones, and the drone perspective, have been used a lot in big-budget action movies lately; that’s one place we see it. I know the Pentagon has been involved in shaping the ways that happens. As a filmmaker what do you make of that?

AR: I got a phone call from a guy who was working with a Pentagon research group saying they were using my film in the group because they were interested in drone blowback, drone hijackings, nonstate actors deploying drones, and my film happens to have all that in it. This guy was working for the Pentagon doing this research but was also part of Jerry Bruckheimer’s team. He was involved in connecting the Pentagon to Bruckheimer’s films. The Pentagon typically doubles his budget, so if he has a $100 million budget, they’ll give him $100 million in free military hardware.

MH: Seriously? Holy shit.

AR: Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen was the first Hollywood production with all four branches of the military: Army, Air Force, Navy, and Marines all working on it. What can even be said about that? There’s this extraordinarily complex exchange between the fantasies of war, the process of recruiting, the technologies of war that appear in the films, and the technologies of visualization that get invented by the military and passed down to the entertainment sphere. 3-D graphics get developed in the military, then get used to project films, but these are often action films focused on still other military fantasies, all of it, on screen and off-screen, in many ways written by the Pentagon.

As an independent filmmaker, as somebody engaged with science fiction, I wonder where there’s space for hope in there. I think it’s going to be hard for Hollywood to keep making movies with the spirit of Pearl Harbor or Top Gun if American soldiers are increasingly in air-conditioned bunkers in Nevada carrying out attacks on huts halfway around the world.

MH: With the Low Drone project, you’re playing with the viewer’s complicity with the piece. You have them agree to take responsibility for the pseudo-legal action of flying a drone over the border fence. Are you concerned with the ways drones isolate us from the consequences of policies they carry out, or is that kind of a red herring and do drones actually force us to confront these questions that already exist?

AR: I’m a member of the Writers Guild, and I recently attended a panel called “To Drone or Not to Drone” hosted by the Guild. It was a  gathering of writers in film and television who wanted to learn what’s going on with drones so they can write more accurately about it. The speaker was P.W. Singer, author of Wired for War, and in the question-and-answer session, clearly the writers were troubled by drones and were trying to ask questions like “What do you think about drones being used to assassinate American citizens?” And what Singer had to say was
“You’re confusing the technology and the tactics. The technology is highly precise, and how it’s used against American citizens is a tactical question.” He said we could argue about the tactics but that he was there to talk about the technology. His argument collapsed the discussion. It was only after I left that I realized what a problematic argument it was. Saying “technology doesn’t carry out extra-judicial assasinations,  tactics do” is as rigorous as saying “guns don’t kill people, people do.” To Singer, these questions apparently exist in neat boxes: the drone over here, and the ways it’s being used over there. But to me that’s completely false.

Technologies constitute us, they change who we are, what we imagine we can do. That is one of the more troubling aspects of droneification specifically of the military, the way in which the disembodied soldier, the remote aerial drone, can make an invasion into a country not an invasion anymore because no soldiers are going. So we can have drone strikes in countries with whom we have no declared hostilities — not even the casual declarations of recent armed conflicts. It makes what in the old days would have been a risky cloak-and-dagger assassination plot — it’s not like we haven’t always done these things — extremely easy. It changes the cost-benefit analysis. The drone assassin reduces the cost barrier to the tactic. Intellectuals like Singer would have us believe the two don’t determine each other, but it’s not the case. The  technology bends the curve of the possible.

MH: But that bending of capacity happens at both ends. When I think of a historical model for an antidrone movement, it would be the  antinuke movement. But they didn’t want their own antinuke submarines. Antidrone warfare activists and artists seem much more interested in how they can use those same technologies.

AR: When I talk to people recently I’ve been reflecting that the drone is the first disruptive military technology to permeate pop culture since the nuclear bomb. We didn’t have this kind of fascination with depleted uranium munitions or smart bombs or other military innovations over the past several decades. The drone has become a pop-cultural icon, constantly in the news and culture in ways we haven’t experienced since the emergence of nuclear weapons. But like you’re saying, in the ’50s there wasn’t a big DIY nukes community, not a lot of artists playing with bombs. But there were artists reckoning with the  mushroom cloud as an image, lots of storytellers imagining different nuclear scenarios. Atomic language had all these cultural deployments. The drone moment that we live in is a time when all kinds of actors in society are playing with the technology, including people who are directly opposed to violent deployments of drones. So you see the Occupy movement’s  Occucopter, for example, or artists like myself building border-busting quad-copters.

The technology is much more within popular reach than nuclear technology ever was. Every technology is invented with an agenda, whether the automobile, the Internet, the television, what have you. These innovations are built with corporate or military agendas, and when they become accessible, they almost immediately become contested sites. You have urban youth morphing the automobile and artists and activists deploying television, the Internet, all these technologies being modified, hacked, and dispatched in innovative ways. The drone seems like, for the first time, to be giving us access to a third dimension, in a sense. We spend our days with our feet on the ground, but the idea that we could build a sculpture that flies, or that you could conduct your own countersurveillance from the air, all seem like organic and predictable developments. Once we get a hold of a technology like drones, artists and activists will redefine and redeploy it.

This piece appears in TNI Vol. 6 “Game of Drones,” subscribe here for the full issue

Interview with Mark Engler. Edited by John Feffer, May 13, 2009

First published at Foreign Policy in Focus

Tapping into a long tradition of politicized science fiction, the young, New-York-based filmmaker Alex Rivera has brought to theaters a movie that reflects in new ways on the disquieting realities of the global economy. Sleep Dealer, his first feature film, has opened in New York and Los Angeles, and will show in 25 cities throughout the country this spring.

Set largely on the U.S.-Mexico border, Sleep Dealer depicts a world in which borders are closed but high-tech factories allow migrant workers to plug their bodies into the network to provide virtual labor to the North. The drama that unfolds in this dystopian setting delves deep into issues of immigration, labor, water rights, and the nature of sustainable development.

Rivera's film drew attention by winning two awards at the Sundance Film Festival — the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award and the Alfred P. Sloan Prize for the best film focusing on science and technology. Los Angeles Times film critic Kenneth Turan wrote of the movie, "Adventurous, ambitious and ingeniously futuristic, Sleep Dealer...combines visually arresting science fiction done on a budget with a strong sense of social commentary in a way that few films attempt, let alone achieve."

Rivera spoke with Foreign Policy In Focus senior analyst Mark Engler by phone from Los Angeles, where the director was attending the local premier of his movie.

Mark Engler: How do you describe your film?

Alex Rivera: Sleep Dealer is a science fiction thriller that takes a look at the future from a perspective that we've never seen before in science fiction. We've seen the future of Los Angeles, in Blade Runner. We've seen the future of Washington, D.C., in Steven Spielberg's Minority Report. We've seen London and Chicago. But we've never seen the places where the great majority of humanity actually lives. Those are in the global South. We've never seen Mexico; we've never seen Brazil; we've never seen India. We've never seen that future on film before.

Engler: Your main character, Memo Cruz, is from rural Mexico, from Oaxaca. In many ways, the village that we see on film is very similar to many poor, remote communities today. It doesn't necessarily look like how we think about the future at all. What was your conception of how economic globalization would affect communities like these?

Rivera: One of the things that fascinates me about the genre is that, explicitly or not, science fiction is always partly about development theory. So when Spielberg shows us Washington, DC with 15-lane traffic flowing all around the city, he's putting forward a certain vision of development.

Sleep Dealer starts in Oaxaca, and to think about the future of Oaxaca, you have to think about how so-called "development" has been happening there and where might it go. And it's not superhighways and skyscrapers. That would be ridiculous. So, in the vision I put forward, most of the landscape remains the same. The buildings look older. Most of the streets still aren't paved. And yet there are these tendrils of technology that have infiltrated the environment. So instead of an old-fashioned TV, there is a high-definition TV. Instead of a calling booth like they have today in Mexican villages, where people call their relatives who are far away, in this future there is a video-calling booth. There's the presence of a North American corporation that has privatized the water and that uses technology to control the water supply. There are remote cameras with guns mounted on them and drones that do surveillance over the area.

The vision of Oaxaca in the future and of the South in the future is a kind of collage, where there are still elements that look ancient, there is still infrastructure that looks older even than it does today, and yet there are little capillaries of high technology that pulse through the environment.

Engler: How far into the future did you set the film?

Rivera: I started working on the ideas in Sleep Dealer 10 years ago, and at that point I thought I was writing about a future that was 40 or 50 years away, or maybe a future that might not ever happen. Over this past decade, though, the world has rapidly caught up with a lot of the fantasy nightmares in the film. That's been an interesting process.

But, you know, a lot of times we use the word "futuristic" to describe things that are kind of explosions of capital, like skyscrapers or futuristic cities. We do not think of a cornfield as futuristic, even though that has as much to do with the future as does the shimmering skyscraper.

Engler: In what sense?

Rivera: In the sense that we all need to eat. In the sense that the ancient cornfields in Oaxaca are the places that replenish the genetic supply of corn that feeds the world. Those fields are the future of the food supply.

For every futuristic skyscraper, there's a mine someplace where the ore used to build that structure was taken out of the ground. That mine is just as futuristic as the skyscraper. So, I think Sleep Dealer puts forward this vision of the future that connects the dots, a vision that says that the wealth of the North comes from somewhere. It tries to look at development and futurism from this split point of view — to look at the fact that these fantasies of what the future will be in the North must always be creating a second, nightmare reality somewhere in the South. That these things are tied together.

Engler: It's interesting that at the recent Summit of the Americas, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez gave President Obama a copy of Eduardo Galeano's Open Veins of Latin America. This is a book that was written over 30 years ago, but that really emphasizes the same point that you are making now, that underdevelopment is not an earlier stage of development, but rather is the product of development. That development and underdevelopment go hand in hand.

Rivera: Exactly. And I think that you can also add immigration into that mix. Because the history that Open Veins lays out is a lot about resource exploitation and transfer from South to North. And today, of course, one of the main entities that places like Mexico export is workers.

Engler: There's a quote from the film that says a lot. Memo's boss, who runs this sort of high-tech Mexican sweatshop, says, "We give the United States what it's always wanted. All the work without the workers." Can you describe this concept of the "cybracero" that you have been developing?

Rivera: The central idea for this film occurred to me about 10 years ago when I was reading an article in Wired magazine about telecommuting. The article was making all of these fantastic predictions that, in the future, there won't be any traffic jams anymore, and no one will have to ride the subway, because everyone will work from home. Well, I come from a family that's mostly immigrant, a family in which my cousins are still arriving and working in landscaping and construction. I tried to put them into this fantasy of working from home — when their home is Peru, 3000 miles away, and their work is construction.

And so I came up with this idea of the telecommuting immigrant, where in the future the borders are sealed, workers stay in the South, and they connect themselves to a network through which they control machines that perform their labor in the North.

The end result is an American economy that receives the labor of these workers but doesn't ever have to care for them, and doesn't have to fear that their children will be born here, and doesn't ever have to let them vote.

When I started this project, the idea of a remote worker was political satire. About eight years ago, it became a reality in the call centers of India and in the idea of off-shoring information-processing jobs that could be done in real time by people on the other side of the planet.

My movie goes further by putting forward a vision of remote manual laborers. What if somebody in India could drive a taxi in New York or bus dishes in a restaurant in Los Angeles? I wonder, do we live in a world where it would be acceptable to have someone in Jakarta laying the bricks for a building that's being built next door to us?

I think under the rules of the economy that we live with, if that were technically possible, it would be considered morally acceptable. It's just another stage of globalization. Yet it seems so surreal, and it makes me wonder: What kind of social order would that produce? What kind of communities would that produce?

Engler: At the same time, I think in the film you suggest that this new technology also has the possibility to connect people across great distances. I wonder how you weigh the alienating effects of technology with some of its redemptive potential?

Rivera: To me, Sleep Dealer is a parable, a myth. There are three characters: One is a remote worker. The second is a remote soldier — a person who is in the United States but flies a drone that patrols the South. And the third character is a kind of writer, a blogger, who connects her body to the network and uploads, not words that she is typing, but rather her memories. And by sharing her memories she is able to let people see these far-away realities that maybe they're not supposed to. She's able to use technology to erase borders for a moment.

And to me, that is the tension of the moment we're living in. We live in a moment when the military is using technology to wage remote war. Corporations are using technology to move extraordinarily quickly around the globe to take advantage of weak environmental standards and weak labor standards.

And yet, we're living in the moment of the social forums, which are organized over the network. We're living in the age of the Zapatistas, who in 1994 sent messages by horseback, messages written on paper, to Internet cafes where they could be sent out as press releases and could be used to build a global network of solidarity. We're living in a time when I'm starting to hear tremors from the labor movement about creating cross-border unions, which will also be built over the network.

So I think we're in this moment when we don't know who will be more empowered by this connectivity and by new technology. And that's the battle in Sleep Dealer. It's over the future of this connected planet and what kind of globalization we'll be living in.

Engler: Beyond immigration politics, the commodification and privatization of water is a major theme in the film. How did you choose water as an issue you would focus on?

Rivera: When I look at dramas of immigration, one of the things that I find unsatisfying is that they always focus on an internal dream, a dream that someone has of going to America and making his or her life better. And, instead, what I wanted Sleep Dealer to start with was this idea that immigrants from Latin America, in the places where they're born, are usually living somehow in the shadow of U.S. intervention, that immigrants come here because we — the United States — are already there.

In my film I wanted to have a presence of U.S. power in my character's village. And so I put in a dam. The dam controls the local water supply, and it makes traditional subsistence life much more difficult. In reality, in Latin America, it's been banana plantations controlled by paramilitaries. It's been gold mines and copper mines and silver mines. It's been oil fields. It's any number of situations that have made it hard for the people there to survive.

I chose water because it also has a symbolic and spiritual dimension to it. When my characters have their first kiss, they are by a little river. When they make love, they go down by the ocean. It would have been a lot harder to do that with petroleum.

Engler: But, of course, struggles over the control of water are not purely metaphorical.

Rivera: When you talk to people about this, the idea that an evil corporation would go in and take the water from the people sounds so bombastic, so bizarre, that it feels like science fiction. And yet it's absolutely happening today.

A lot of people are familiar with the story of Cochabamba, Bolivia, where an American company, Bechtel, privatized the water, and there literally was a water war. All of this stuff can sound like a bad Kevin Costner movie — the idea of a water war — and yet it's one of those realities that, if you were to graph it, is only going to trend upwards in terms of its intensity in the future.

Engler: The characters in the film are moved to take action about water privatization. Yet this takes the form of a highly individualized type of action — they don't join a social movement. I wondered about the absence of more collective resistance in the movie.

Rivera: Well, I think you've hit on the Achilles' heel of political narrative film. Narrative film is driven by psychology and by identifying with a character. And I think that's why there are so few truly transcendent political films. In narrative cinema we're used to identifying with one person, and so even if the story is anti-imperial or anti-racist or anti-misogynist, it's usually one character's journey in overcoming those things.

In Sleep Dealer there are three characters that represent three vast segments of our society. Those characters are in conflict at first, and then they come together. And their story is meant to have larger resonance than just the three individuals.

But I think that devising a narrative where political hope and political power doesn't belong to one actor, but is somehow made collective, that is very, very challenging. I look at The Battle of Algiers as an incredible model, where there is a single character — Ali la Pointe — who we meet, but then his subjectivity sort of bleeds away from him and is given to a social movement by the end of the film.

That film is a masterpiece; I am but a learner. When we were writing Sleep Dealer we were trying to think about what the future of what a radically networked social movement would look like, but we couldn't get there. Instead, I think the contribution of Sleep Dealer is in being a parable, a myth, that thinks through some of the impulses of globalization.

Engler: How did you first come to this type of work?

Rivera: I grew up in upstate New York, and when I was 15 years old I met Pete Seeger. Without knowing who he was, I ended up doing volunteer work for one of his organizations. After meeting him I learned about his life using music and song as a part of social movements. When I went to college, that's what I went to study — music and social movements.

Engler: So you had taken up the claw-hammer banjo?

Rivera: I did learn how to play the five-string banjo, actually! I can still do it. But at a certain moment I decided that the banjo wasn't the future of social movements. And I decided that through film and video you could express much more complicated and subtle arguments about the world than you can through song.

Engler: I think you're pissing off all of the political songwriters out there.

Rivera: With song I think you have an access to the spirit, access to the heart. But with film we have two hours with people trapped in a dark room. You can refer back to something that happened 60 minutes earlier in the film, and you can play with what your viewers remember, and you can build really intimate relationships with characters. You can lay out both an emotional journey and an intellectual argument. I don't think there's anybody who will say that you can do all of that in a song.

Engler: Are you concerned with being pigeonholed as a political filmmaker or having the movie labeled as a "political" film?

Rivera: I'd be happy to be pigeonholed as a political filmmaker. For me, making a film is so difficult and so challenging that I only want to make films that are relevant to the world we live in.

Engler: Do you see a trend toward politics, or maybe away from politics, in science fiction filmmaking today?

Rivera: Science fiction has always had a radical history, all the way from Fritz Lang's Metropolis to Terry Gilliam's Brazil, which is a comedic portrait of fascism, up to Gattaca, which looks at the way that DNA profiling could be used by the government, to Children of Men, to Michael Winterbottom's Code 46.

Science fiction has always been a space for radical critique on one hand, and, on the other, for selling Happy Meals. I do think that science fiction today is at risk of being completely co-opted by superhero movies, big franchises, and xenophobic fantasies about space aliens. It has that face as well. But I think the long history, going back almost a hundred years, is of science fiction as a place for forward-thinking, radical thought.

Engler: Perhaps unique among these movies you've mentioned, Sleep Dealer is a bilingual film, with the vast majority of the dialogue in Spanish. How did you think about language in the film?

Rivera: We need to know in our guts that we are going into a future that will be multicultural. I think we are seeing in the news right now that America might not be the only world power in the future, that English might not be the international language of choice. So, for me, doing a science fiction set in the South and doing it in a language that was not English was fundamental. I'd love to do a science fiction in Nahuatl, or in Tagalog, or in Pashto. The language is just part of a gesture that says, the future belongs to all of us.

I think the situation we're in is very striking. It is as if you met somebody and you asked them, "What do you want to have in your future?" And they said, "I don't know. I've never thought about it." In the cinema, that's what we have for the entire global South. We don't have any cinema that reflects on the future of the so-called Third World. There's zero.

Why is it that we've seen comedies from the South, we've seen romances from the South, we've seen action movies from the South? We've seen everything but reflections on the future. To me, the first step to getting to the future that you want to live in is to imagine it.

Alex Rivera, July 5, 2009  --  First published on Indiewire


Bananas Main

A scene from Fredrik Gertten's "Bananas!*." Image courtesy of the filmmaker.

A simmering controversy at this year's Los Angeles Film Festival has torn at the community here, dividing filmmakers, frustrating festival staff, and frightening festival sponsors. Questions of filmmaking ethics are being debated day and night against the backdrop of potential lawsuits from one of America's biggest corporations.

The film in the eye of the storm is "Bananas!*," a documentary which centers on Juan Dominguez, a personal injury lawyer and epic film character. As a boy, Dominguez and his family fled the Cuban revolution. In the U.S., Dominguez became notorious for having his face plastered on billboards announcing his law firm’s phone number around Los Angeles. He drives a red Ferrari and sips espresso from a gold-plated cup while filing personal injury claims on behalf of mostly Latino clients in Los Angeles.

The film's focus is Dominguez's biggest case - by far - and a case that could pose potentially grave threats to the bottom line of many transnational corporations.

Tellez v. Dole Food centers on Nicaraguan farm workers who worked on Dole's banana plantations. In the Seventies, Dole used a pesticide called DBCP. The pesticide, which was produced by Dow Chemical, was made illegal in the United States in 1977 because it was found to cause sterility in those exposed to it. Dole stopped using DBCP in the United States, but bought all of the remaining supplies to continue use in other countries, including Nicaragua.

None of these facts are in doubt, or are even contested by Dole itself.

"Bananas!*" follows Juan Dominguez and his associates as they take a small group of Nicaraguan farm workers into a Los Angeles courtroom to face Dole's lawyers, and an American jury, to demand compensation for the damages that they allege the pesticide caused to them -- specifically sterility.


A scene from Fredrik Gertten's "Bananas!*" Image courtesy of the filmmaker.

At the conclusion of the film - which includes much courtroom footage - the jury makes two rulings: they find in favor of most (but not all) of the plaintiffs, and they find that Dole did not do any of this accidentally. The jury rules that Dole acted "in malice," and they award the farm workers millions of dollars.

The film, which was supported by ITVS, Sundance, and many others, was finished earlier this year and accepted into competition here at the Los Angeles Film Festival where the winning documentary takes home a $50,000 prize. The screening was to be "Bananas!*" world premiere.

The controversy around the documentary began a few months ago when a judge, responding to a request by Dole, threw out the lawsuits. Judge Victoria Chaney ruled that Juan Dominguez, and many of his Nicaraguan plaintiffs, were making fraudulent claims. The judge agreed with Dole that evidence of sterility was fabricated, and even that many of the plaintiffs never worked at Dole at all.

The case is not yet settled. Juan Dominguez and the Nicaraguans he represents have all denied any wrongdoing and are continuing to press their case in court.

However, this recent ruling caused two things to happen at this year’s Los Angeles Film Festival.

The first impact was that Dole used Judge Chaney's recent ruling as part of their campaign to discredit the film. Dole says that the film is slander, and have threatened to sue the festival for screening the film, the sponsors for supporting the festival, and the filmmaker for making the film.

The second impact was that a swell of voices here at the festival began wondering out loud how filmmaker Fredrik Gertten should address the recent ruling in his film, and used the situation as a jumping off point for a conversation about ‘documentary ethics.’

The first of these points is, to me, easy to understand and to settle. In Dole’s actions against "Bananas!*," we have a case of a corporation using the threat of lawsuits to defend their image. And, while it’s creepy to see a non-profit arts organization under legal threats from a multi-billion dollar corporation, it’s pretty easy to understand everyone’s motivations and actions here: the corporation wants to protect their image and the festival has to navigate their commitment to the film and their desire to not be sued into oblivion.

The festival moved "Bananas!*" out of competition, and dubbed it a “case study,” preceding the screenings with a disclaimer, and following each screening with a panel discussion, interestingly moderated by the festival’s lawyer.

The reaction among the community of filmmakers, however, has been more difficult to pick apart.

Many filmmakers here have stated that since the judge found that fraud was committed, that the story "Bananas!*" tells is compromised. They take Judge Chaney's ruling as a touch of truth. These filmmakers have been openly -- even in the panel discussion immediately following the film's premier -- encouraging the filmmaker to revisit the film "to better reflect the truth." The moderator asked Gertten “how did you feel when you saw Juan Dominguez acting inappropriately?”

In informal conversations at the festival, and on some filmmakers' blogs, this event has become a cause to ponder documentary ethics.

But why?

Let's put "Bananas!*" aside for a moment, and look at the big picture. One of the things documentarians do - often - is question the justice system.

Look at "The Thin Blue Line," an obvious example. Errol Morris uses the film to present evidence that counters a conviction a court delivered, and ultimately, by releasing the film, Morris proves the inmate's innocence.

But what if someone told Errol he should not make the film because the case was already settled? That would be absurd. Or what if Errol made the case for innocence in the film, but after releasing the film a judge disagreed with the evidence the film presented? Would he be asked to re-cut the film to square his version of events with the judge’s? Of course not.

The situation of filmmakers and others pushing for a re-cut of "Bananas!*" is no less absurd. A community of filmmakers here is telling a documentarian that a court ruling should compel him to doubt his subjects, and re-cut his film. The problem here is the filmmaker doesn’t agree with the recent ruling. Gertten believes that Juan Dominguez did not likely commit fraud, that the farm workers’ cases have merit, and that Judge Chaney’s ruling must be seen as a triumph of Dole’s team of paid investigators and corporate lawyers (who produced all of the evidence of the alleged fraud, using testimony gathered from anonymous witnesses).

At the "Bananas!*" premiere no one asked Gertten if he still believed in his story. When the lights went up the conversation began with the participants implicitly accepting the truth behind the new ruling from the judge, and asking Gertten how he would deal with his presumably tainted film. It would have been hard to imagine a better post-screening discussion, from Dole’s point of view – no one even mentioned the pesticide.

I was bewildered, and left wondering if the group was falling into a trap: reading the Ferrari-driving lawyer who has his face on billboards as a sleazy stereotype – a mercenary trial lawyer at best and fraudulent Latino hustler at worst. One way or another, many participants were more willing to assume that Judge Chaney (and Dole) had found real fraud, than to assume that Juan Dominguez and filmmaker Gertten had found the real truth.

The same day that Judge Chaney dismissed Juan Dominguez’s case against Dole, potentially saving Dole tens of millions of dollars in damages payable to Nicaraguan farm workers – that same day -- she was nominated for a position on a state appellate court by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, and removed from her role in the case. Dole is a major donor to the Governator. Hmm.

It doesn’t matter if it’s by questioning a past court decision, following an unfolding court case, or in the case of "Bananas!*," a case that takes a turn after the film is completed, documentarians play the most crucial role when they question the official story. This belief is to me, part of the fabric of our independent film community. It's been fascinating and frustrating to see that belief open for discussion at this year's Los Angeles Film Festival.

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