NALIPster's film Sleep Dealer featured in New York Times article
NALIP mentor and founding member Alex Rivera and his film Sleep Dealer are featured in a New York Time article about movies that combine commentary on immigration and genre entertainment. (Sleep Dealer is also featured in an article in the current issue of Wired Magazine, available online here.)
At the Border Between Politics and Thrills
by Dennis Lim, The New York Times
The current crop of American films dealing with immigration is as varied as the immigrant experience itself: an ensemble melodrama about illegal aliens in Los Angeles (the recent "Crossing Over"), a quiet story of a Dominican baseball player in the minor leagues in Iowa (next month's "Sugar"). But there are a pair that could be considered movies without borders. Both are Spanish-language features shot in Mexico by first-time American directors, and both are ambitious hybrids: socially conscious films in the form of brash genre entertainments.
Cary Fukunaga's "Sin Nombre," which had its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in January and opens on Friday, combines elements of a chase movie, a gangster flick and a tragic western with the specific plight of Central American immigrants making their way across the Mexican countryside toward the United States border. Alex Rivera's "Sleep Dealer" (April 17), which was shown at Sundance last year, is a science fiction parable set in a near-future Mexico, where concepts of migration and labor mobility are reinvented by cutting-edge technology.
Mr. Fukunaga's film was indirectly inspired by the nation's deadliest human trafficking case, which left 19 immigrants dead after they were abandoned in a sealed trailer in South Texas in 2003. He was a graduate film student at New York University at the time. Driven to visualize the horror of the incident — to "imagine what it was like in that trailer," he said — he made a 13-minute film, "Victoria Para Chino," which won a prize at Sundance and a Student Academy Award.
In researching his short Mr. Fukunaga, a California native of Japanese and Swedish descent, acquired a more expansive picture of migrant flows to the United States. "The way I'd viewed immigration was strictly from the U.S.-Mexican border, and I'd never considered what it could be like from farther away," he said. He learned of Central Americans who made the perilous trip north across multiple borders, riding freight trains through Mexico, and realized that this arduous journey could be a compelling backbone for a feature film.
He traveled repeatedly to Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras. His first trip was to Chiapas, the southernmost state in Mexico, which shares a border with Guatemala. With the help of a friend's father, a journalist in Mexico, he contacted border police officers and social workers, who in turn put him in touch with gang members, both in prison and on the streets, who had a hand in immigrant smuggling. He visited the train yards where immigrants would gather, waiting to hop the freights at night, and the shelters that housed those who were injured on the journey.
And from almost everyone he talked to, he said, he heard "horrific stories" of exploitation, corruption and brutality. "There's a lot of violence without consequence," he said. "People can just do things, and no one will ever hear about it."
Not content with his interviews Mr. Fukunaga decided to ride the trains himself, partly to help allay his queasiness about potential exploitation. "I was making a film about people's misery," he said. "I didn't want to talk about things I didn't know firsthand."
Disregarding the warnings of the friends who had accompanied him, he boarded a northbound train packed with immigrants in the Mexican town of Tapachula. A few hours into the journey gunshots rang out in the next car, along with shouts of "bandilla" (bandit). The next morning he discovered that a young Guatemalan had been shot for refusing to turn over his money.
He rode all the way to the Oaxacan border, and on return visits to Mexico made two more trips, each time picking up where he had left off. When he told his traveling companions he was preparing to make a movie, he said, "they thought I was crazy." But a camaraderie would develop nonetheless: "There was a real sense of protecting each other."
Mr. Fukunaga takes pride that "Sin Nombre," which won the directing and cinematography prizes at Sundance, is rooted in thoroughly researched particulars, many of which will be evident only to Spanish-speaking viewers. He was careful to get regional accents right and to use the specific argot of the gang members, whom he grilled about their familial dynamics, a line of questioning that he said annoyed some of them: "The guys were like, 'Enough of this "Who buys the toilet paper?" I want to tell you how we chop up bodies.' "
To the extent that "Sin Nombre" has a message, Mr. Fukunaga said, he hopes it is an "anti-isolationist" one. "Americans think we're so far away from the world," he said. "But this is a North American story. It's not so exotic. And it obviously has an impact here every day. Look right there" — he pointed to the open kitchen of the Manhattan restaurant where the interview was being conducted, staffed mainly by Latino workers — "that's where it's happening."
With "Sleep Dealer" Mr. Rivera also wanted to reflect the daily realities of a shrinking world, but he chose to do so by way of what he called "third world cyberpunk." While he has long been a sci-fi fan, he saw what he called "a black hole, a vacuum" in the genre's typical locations and perspectives.
"Science fiction in the past has always looked at Los Angeles, New York, London, Tokyo," he said in a recent telephone interview. "We've never seen São Paulo, or Jakarta, or Mexico City. We've never seen the future of the rest of the world, which happens to be where the majority of humanity lives."
"Sleep Dealer," which won the screenwriting award at Sundance last year (the script is by Mr. Rivera and David Riker) as well as the festival's Alfred P. Sloan Prize for the best film dealing with science or technology, envisions a future in which would-be immigrants remain south of the border and use network-connected robots to beam in their services.
"Their labor comes without their body," Mr. Rivera said. "The idea struck me as a reflection on outsourcing, a reflection on the position that immigrants have in this country today, where they're made invisible from the political system."
Mr. Rivera, who studied political theory at Hampshire College, has been active in immigrant rights groups over the years. His father came to the United States from Peru, and many members of his extended family are immigrants.
"Sleep Dealer" is his first feature, but he has been making experimental shorts and documentaries since the 1990s. His previous film, a 2003 documentary for PBS called "The Sixth Section," was about a community of migrants in upstate New York rebuilding their village in Puebla, Mexico, from afar — a real-life microcosm of the world of "Sleep Dealer," in which people are, as Mr. Rivera put it, "connected by technology but divided by borders."
"Sleep Dealer" taps into the cultural and economic fears that have come with a globalized planet. "If you look at 'Blade Runner' or 'I, Robot,' the drama comes from the idea that the robots will wake up and want to kill the people," Mr. Rivera said. "In my film people use machines to exploit each other. The robot doesn't want to kill you. The robot wants to take your job."
Like Mr. Fukunaga, Mr. Rivera was looking less to advance a political message than to foster a general open-mindedness. For all its newfangled trappings "Sleep Dealer" reasserts a narrative as old as this country.
"I believe the American story is that this is a nation of immigrants," Mr. Rivera said. "That's more powerful than the story that people who come here are threats."
NALIPster featured in Discovery series teaching filmmaking to inmates
NALIP member and award-winning filmmaker Pepe Urquijo (LPA 2007) is featured in Discovery Channel's documentary series "San Quentin Film School" teaching filmmaking to incarcerated me in San Quentin State Prison. The series - airing throughout April - was produced and directed by the Award-winning team of Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky (“Metallica: Some Kind of Monster”, “Paradise Lost 1 & 2” and the TV series “Iconoclasts”).
Pepe writes this about his experience:
"Over the summer NALIP board chair Beni Matias passed my info on to some folks creating an intensive 6 week film class to a group of nine incarcerated men. I gladly accepted the challenge and it was a marvelous experience. I taught these 9 first time filmmakers and together we all produced 9 short but powerful films that ranged from an "Iron Chef" spin off to water conservation rights and the Klamath River to the Birdman of San Quentin. Each film has its own compelling story both in front & behind the camera. The finished films were shared with San Quentin's general population and from what I've learned the men are still applauding these first time filmmakers visions."
A new episode airs on Discovery every Friday through April 24, at 6 a.m. and again at 9 a.m.
Apr 03, 9:00 am
The students are given a new challenge when instructor Pepe Urquijo asks them to venture with their cameras to West Block, a chaotic housing unit with a notorious history of violence.
Apr 10, 9:00 am
Special guest lecturer David Arquette challenges the students to find new ways of performing their stories.