When I first watched Alex Rivera’s Sleep Dealer about four years ago, I wrote an article about it that would have deserved a deeper analysis. That is why I decided to re-watch it today and write a bit more about it.
This film introduces a near future in which a young Mexican farmer facing the militarized privatization of water resources on a daily basis and who see his house destroyed by a drone piloted from the United States. He then moves to Tijuana where he earns in life by working in a sleep dealer, a factory in which the mind and energy of Mexican labor workers are being used through body-plug connections linked to various working machines in the US.
The views of the factory are the most striking images of the film as they fully reconstruct the imagery of the assembly line factory as we currently know it while having the object of production disappeared from this same imagery. The workers’ bodies still endure the physical labor and its repetition, yet the product of their work is situated on the other side of the border. The connection cables are the only link from the laborer to this product and the violence with which they penetrate his body expresses the power of the exploitation. It is probably not innocent that those cables make the workers appear as puppets in a literal illustration of the dispossession of their body.
On the other side of the border, the drone pilot is subjected to a similar dispossession. He is connected through cables in his body just as well, yet his energy and mind are not dedicated to labor, but rather to the accomplishment of military assassination of ‘water terrorists’ i.e. people from the Mexican proletariat trying to survive by stealing water. The nature of his relationship with them through a digital interface allows him to disconnect what he sees and does from his perception of reality.
Of course in this latter case, this is barely science fiction as the United States currently operates targeted assassinations through drones in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen and Somalia. For a lot of reasons, the dissociation of the body and his instrument (in that case, a weapon but in the film’s factory the instrument is a working tool) is profitable on a political and economical level to the dominant power. The film Sleep Dealer only materializes a current situation. The one in which labor is only understood as a flow of energy that needs to be extracted from the body, controlled and maximized through a strategized interface. The more this interface is separating the body from its production, the more the exploitation is effective. In this regard, the invention of the assembly line was the key moment of such movement of separation as each worker became in charge of one piece of an object that he could not comprehend as a whole.
On the contrary, the repossession of the worker’s body and its reconciliation with his production allows a political empowerment and emancipation from the transcendental logic of the capitalist system. In this regard, Naomi Klein and Avi Lewis’ documentary The Take, which shows the physical occupation of a factory in Argentina by its workers and the redistribution of power and wealth to the ensemble of the laborers. The bodies and the factory were so involved together that the former had to physically defend the latter against the police which was trying to take back the factory for its former owner to be able to sell it.