Filmmaker Alex Rivera Challenges the Borders of the Imagination

October 20, 2016

On February 11, University of Pittsburgh students and faculty had the unique pleasure of meeting the award-winning, Peruvian-American filmmaker Alex Rivera. He attended a public and several private classroom screenings of his feature film, Sleep Dealer (2008). Rivera’s presence provoked many thoughtful questions and conversations. He discussed topics ranging from the original inspiration of his film to the future of civil society protest. Rivera also showed some of the work he has done since the 2008 release of his film, screening inspiring music videos that expose the harsh reality of immigration issues on an everyday level.

It Was All a Dream (or a Nightmare)

Filmmaker Alex Rivera (left) with Pitt Professor Armando García, event coordinator

Although Rivera grew up in a fairly Americanized household, immigration has always been a prominent motif in his life. His father immigrated to America from Peru when he was fairly young and married Alex’s American mother. As a young child living in New York, Rivera recalls the short, long-distance phone calls exchanged with his father’s family. At the time, Peru was amidst a violent wave of internal terrorism and political chaos. Due to the threat of violence, other members of his father’s family attempted to immigrate to the U.S. Throughout the 1990s Rivera noticed that as his family came north, the wall between Mexico and the U.S. grew more prominent. At the same time, technology was improving and the surge of the internet created a rhetoric of a new global society. Borders were being sealed as the internet facilitated their virtual crossing.

Rivera stated that he original idea for Sleep Dealer came to him in 1997. During discussion he stated that he “had a dream, or nightmare” of a world in which physical labor could be completed from home and there would be no need for immigration. Rivera voiced this idea to his friend as a joke, but realized that this reality was not so fictitious. The filmmaker made a few short films including Día de la Independencia and Why Cybraceros? that began to play with these ideas. Why Cybraceros? was a fictitious, commercial-like short film that parodied earlier films made to defend and promote the Bracero Program. Rivera was not the only one that realized the idea of virtual labor could one day become reality. In fact, a reporter from the Los Angeles newspaper La Opinion called Rivera looking for the CEO of the up and coming Cybraceros company. Rivera played along with the interview, allowing the publication of an article entitled “Cybracero: Telepresence of Farm Workers” (April 27, 2003) that featured several opinions about this new company.

It took Rivera seven years to raise the $2 million needed to make Sleep Dealer. The film was finally completed and released in 2008. That same year, it won at the Sundance Film Festival. Although the film was not a large box-office success, Rivera stated that he was pleased that it has been successful in the world of academia. Unfortunately, the film was never officially released in Mexico, but many bootlegged versions have exposed the film to Mexican audiences.

Imagining the Global South’s Future through Sci Fi

As a child whose mother worked for IMB, Rivera was inspired by technology from a young age. He was drawn toward the Sci Fi genre but stated that as a Peruvian American viewer he did not see himself represented in Hollywood Sci Fi films. Historically, Latin American filmmakers have produced Sci Fi films, but many of these alien flicks poke fun at society without offering solutions to the problems they encounter. Rivera stated that he noticed a lack of Latin American and Global South films that used this genre to reimagine the future. He was inspired to work within Hollywood conventions to create a Sci Fi film that offered an alternative, Latin American perspective to contemplate the possible future.

Rivera used Sleep Dealer to traject the continuation of technological growth that he has witnessed throughout his lifetime. He stated that he wanted to portray technology as something that has its own impulse to grow, citing Moore’s law as an example of the intense growth capacity that computers inherently possess. He also believes that technology wants to get closer to the body, an idea which is exemplified in his film by nodes and cables that connect directly to the nervous system. Through this motif, the film portrays the inevitable link between technology and the physical world.

Although he portrays the futuristic dependency on virtual resources, he also recognizes the human necessity for natural resources. During discussion he pointed out to the audience that we often think of development in capitalist forms. He stated that if we are told to imagine something futuristic, we are likely to think of a jet-pack or some other technological device that symbolizes development. However, many times we overlook the fact that these developments are not possible without natural resources to produce energy. Technology would not be able to develop without an energy source connected to the physical world. He also stated that a more recent rise in physical protests has led him to discover the importance of the presence of bodies in relation to politics and change, citing examples such as the Occupy movement and Arab Spring. He firmly believes that change cannot occur without physical protests.

The Responsibility of Filmmaking

Through his work, Rivera has had the opportunity to travel to many inspiring locations. He stated that the Mexico-U.S. border wall on the beach of Tijuana is one of his favorite places to visit. The wall, which appears not only in Sleep Dealer, but also in some of his short documentaries, is a place of constant change and disintegration. When asked how it felt to be present at this beach full of torn families, he voiced that it is a powerful experience, something that he is grateful to be able to witness.

Rivera’s work has also taken him to poverty-stricken areas, specifically in rural Mexico. He admitted that he sometimes feels guilty, walking around a town where most families struggle to put food on the table, holding a $1,000 video camera in front of them. At the same time, he thinks it is his role to use his artistic ability in a responsible way in order to reveal this reality. He also stated that in Sleep Dealer, he sees Luz’s character as a surrogate for himself. Luz uses her nodes to upload her memories to TruNode, selling her stories to strangers. By sharing these stories she connects people across the globe, and reveals to people what they are not necessarily meant to see. In a similar way, Rivera’s work brings to light issues that are not always openly discussed.

New and Future Projects

Rivera recently collaborated with music artists and the National Day Laborer Organizing Network (NDLON) to create immigration and deportation awareness videos. He directed the acoustic-version music video of Aloe Blacc’s hit “Wake Me Up”  and La Santa Cecilia’s “El Hielo (ICE)” . Both videos use nonprofessional actors to show the emotional pain inflicted on individuals and families affected by deportation. Most of the actors in the videos are also undocumented and some are even in the process of deportation proceedings or have already been deported. The videos were also created as part of the Not One More Deportation movement which seeks to change existing immigration laws.

Although these recent works have been emotional depictions of reality, Rivera has not strayed from the Sci Fi genre. He continues to do other video and multimedia projects that confront issues of immigration, labor, and technology. Currently, he is working on the completion of a short film that will be released by PBS.

When asked why he has chosen Mexico as the subject of much of his work, he replied, “If you’re not thinking about the future of Mexico, then you’re not thinking of the future of the U.S. either.” Throughout his body of work Rivera has made this clear, he highlights the inevitable traffic across borders even as physical barriers go up, virtual barriers come down, constantly entwining the fate of nations despite physical and imaginary borders.





AloeBlaccVEVO. “Aloe Blacc - Wake Me Up (Official).”  YouTube. YouTube, 22 Oct. 2013. Web. 19 Feb. 2014.

LaSantaCeciliaVEVO. “La Santa Cecilia - Ice El Hielo.” YouTube. YouTube 08 Apr. 2013. Web. 19 Feb. 2014.

Not One More Deportation. National Day Laborer Organizing Network. Web. 19 Feb. 2014

Photo: Filmmaker Alex Rivera (left) pictured with University of Pittsburgh Professor Armando García, event coordinator.

About Author(s)

Madeline Townsend's picture
Madeline Townsend
Madeline is a senior at the University of Pittsburgh. She is pursuing a degree in Spanish and Global Studies, with a focus on the Latin American region. She plans to present an honors thesis on visual representations of the internal conflict that occurred in Peru between 1980 and 2000. She also studies Portuguese and Film Studies as minors and works as one of the Panoramas interns.