Posted by Pablo Kjolseth on January 10, 2010
Sleep Dealer. Did you see it? Probably not. But you should. Do you like Bladerunner? The Matrix? If so, you should check out Sleep Dealer. All three are inspired in their own way. Bladerunner and The Matrix are equal parts smart fun and existential queries. Sleep Dealer is both smart and political. It can’t help but be a bit existential too as, to some extent, that is unavoidable when covering a protagonist’s struggle in the near-future where the question is: how much of your life are you willing to sacrifice to make a better living?
Sleep Dealer had it’s film festival premiere at Sundance in 2008 (which is appropriate, as it had help from the Sundance lab) and then, aside for an incredibly limited release (limited²) it went straight to DVD in the U.S. on September 8th of 2009. Sleep Dealer is now also available on Blu-Ray.
I tried to give Sleep Dealer a theatrical bump last September here in Boulder, Colorado, before its DVD-release, but the listed contact at Maya Entertainment couldn’t be bothered to return my phone call. Story of my life. He might as well be working at Sony Pictures Classics, Samuel Goldwyn Films, Roadside Attractions, or… aw, heck, I’ll finish this particular rant at the end of my blog. For now; let’s talk about Sleep Dealer: a fascinating futuristic film by Alex Rivera that delves into the life of a young Mexican from Oaxaca who unwittingly brings down drone-death from the skies and then flees to Tijuana to have black-market nodes surgically implanted into his body so as to be able to provide “virtual” sweat-shop labor.
Memo Cruz (Luis Fernando Peña) lives in a small Mexican village and dreams of escaping his poverty by working for hi-tech factories that service the big cities of the U.S. He uses his homemade radio to eavesdrop in on conversations between other people like him who’ve made the transition. His radio also intercepts a communication by the patrolling security forces involving “Aqua-Terrorists” and this results in a remote-controlled drone being dispatched to blow up his house.
A fascinating web of interconnections follow this deadly act. It leads to literal connections between Memo and wires that plug his nervous system into a network that controls robots laboring on the other side of the border. This is because the prosperous big cities want the cheap labor without having to deal with the actual people who provide it. But the “virtual” work is dangerous stuff, and the people connecting into the system are often pushed to the point of collapse; ergo the factory employers being dubbed “Sleep Dealers.”
Sleep Dealer was beautifully shot in Super 16mm, giving the landscapes a stunning color and grain that only comes from celluloid. But unlike some science fiction films that let the style overshadow their substance, Sleep Dealer never loses its connection a story that feels all-too-relevant. Director Alex Rivera makes several statements that inform his reasons for making the film:
Rivera was also inspired to comment on the following things: “violent reality shows like COPS, private military contractors like Blackwater, remote control drones like the Predator Drone, the trend of outsourcing jobs over the web, the impending global water crisis, and the ubiquity of video sharing sites YouTube to name a few.”
All of which leads me to this (and here comes my end-rant): Sleep Dealer represents the best of International Cinema. It’s set in Mexico, is almost entirely in Spanish (with English subtitles). It’s the kind of smart and entertaining film that would appeal to both mature adults and students alike. And here I am programing an International Film Series, champing at the bit to bring it to my neck of the woods. But, as a calendar arthouse film series that’s not on the radar for many distributors who only like dealing with established bookers, my pecking order puts me so low on the totem pole that my attempts to pursue a screening were ignored. I’m left feeling like a rejected date on prom night who has just been covered in pig’s blood.
Here’s what my film series has to offer: 25,000 printed schedules, 5,000 of which are direct mailers (which means, going into the hands of passionate movie-lovers that pay attention to unusual movies), over $10,000 spend on print ads for every program, weekly radio spots and other promotions, customized website presence, exposure via trailers that screen in front of all our films, fliers posted all over town, plugs in FaceBook, Twitter, and more. Plus: we do all our own press-releases which sometimes translate into in-depth coverage pieces in the newspapers (which, yes, are still being read). And! Since we have 400 seats in our auditorium – anyone who comes and sees your film is a potential word-of-mouth booster.
I am, of course, sought out by many distributors who recognize the aforementioned merits of being selected by my program. But I’ve lost out on too many gems to be complacent. My take-home message to the guilty parties is this: think past the opening weekend box-office and think about the shelf-life of your movie. Think of its long-term exposure. Think of all the people who will know about your film because of the various mixed-media coverage it garners even when it only screens for one or two days. At very least you get to pocket the guarantee money (unlike, say, Landmark – which is now charging many exhibitors for the privilege of showing their films).
Honestly, what do I need to do to get your attention? Send in a drone attack? Guess what, I’m considering it.
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