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Alex Rivera’s lost cult hit “Sleep Dealer” about immigration and drones is back

A science fiction thriller about immigration and drone warfare sounds like a mash-up ripped from today’s headlines.

Except director Alex Rivera started writing “Sleep Dealer” in the late 1990s. It premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2008, where it won an award for outstanding screenwriting (shared with co-writer David Riker).

The film started appearing in art houses and festivals — including local screenings at the AFI Silver Theatre and the Cultural Center of the Inter-American Development Bank — and getting admiring reviews.

Then, poof! “Sleep Dealer” all but disappeared. The film’s distributor went out of business, and it never got a proper commercial release. It fell to bootleggers and academics to cherish and share the film.

“It’s been the pirates and the professors who have kept this film alive for the last half-decade,” Rivera says.

Now an unusual effort is underway to rescue “Sleep Dealer” from oblivion — and it may prove a model for disseminating other worthy films that have been blocked from the usual industry channels.

First, a three-year-0ld project of the Sundance Institute called #ArtistServices recently selected “Sleep Dealer” to be one of the films it would support by facilitating digital distribution deals with iTunes, Amazon and, soon, Netflix.

Then, a grassroots network of the film’s supporters plus a couple dozen progressive groups interested in the film’s themes have begun promoting “Sleep Dealer” on social media. One of the more prominent members of the campaign is Van Jones, co-host of “Crossfire” on CNN and a former green jobs adviser in the Obama White House.

“I just started calling my friends everywhere,” Jones says in an email. “I said, ‘This guy [Rivera] has rescued this amazing film from the corporate trash bin. This time, we need to make sure everyone sees it.'”

Jones, who calls himself “a science fiction geek,” says he missed sci-fi flicks that “tackled the serious issues — like race, immigration, class….Then ‘Sleep Dealer’ blew me away. I thought this movie could seed a whole new category of film — social justice sci-fi.”

If the digital distribution campaign succeeds, the supporters say they will arrange for on-demand screenings in theaters.

“Today we are debating drones, jobs and the child refugee crisis at our southern border,” Jones says. “‘Sleep Dealer’ puts a human face on all of these issues.”

Not that heavy themes overwhelm the story. The character Memo Cruz (played by actor Luis Fernando Peña) leaves the barren fields of his farming village in Mexico where the water has been dammed by a corporation for use elsewhere. He goes to Tijuana, where he seeks a “coyotek” — a play on “coyote,” one who smuggles undocumented immigrants. The coyotek gives him a “node job” so he can become a “cybracero.” The nodes implanted in his muscles allow him to plug into one of the borderland’s virtual factories, where workers make the physical motions that remotely control robots in gleaming American cities. The robots are constructing skyscrapers, cleaning houses, cutting grass.

“This is the American Dream,” explains a character. “We give the United States what they always wanted: All the work, without the workers.”

The pay is better than the wages in poor villages, but the work saps the workers’ energy and spirit, until they collapse from exhaustion, which is why the virtual sweatshops are called “sleep dealers.”

Another character is Luz (Leonor Varela), a struggling Mexican writer who uses her node job to sell her uploaded memories online to survive. She befriends Memo. An unknown virtual customer is especially interested in buying memories about Memo.

And then there is Rudy (Jacob Vargas), a Mexican-American in the United States who works as a remote-controller of drones that attack suspected “aqua-terrorists” in Memo’s village. What drives the suspense is how these three lives intertwine. (The Mexican characters speak Spanish, with English subtitles.)

The film grew from Rivera’s fascination with paradoxes we take for granted: Borders that are militarized yet porous. People who are present in their absence, like immigrants Skyping back home, or warriors guiding missiles from the comfort of an office.

“Science fiction lets you take the world that is very familiar, and by just exaggerating it or tweaking it a little, you can make that familiar world seem very strange,” Rivera says.

Rivera filmed “Sleep Dealer” in parts of Mexico where families still obtain water from a well with a bucket, yet they have satellite dishes to pull in international television. The whole world has a future, yet “Sleep Dealer” is one of the first science fiction films largely set in the underdeveloped parts — a milestone in film history.

“I was inspired by ‘Star Wars’ as much as by ‘El Norte,'” says Rivera, referring to the seminal 1983 immigration drama.

Rivera, 41, grew up in Wappingers Falls, N.Y. His father immigrated from Peru. The director’s first film was called “Papapapá,” which compared the journey of his father to that of a potato, and explored the mental space inhabited by his father, suspended somewhere between Lima and New York. The English synonym for father, “papa,” is “papá” in Spanish, and “potato” is “papa.”

Now based in Los Angeles, Rivera recently has been making poetic music videos about the struggle for immigrant rights, featuring artists including La Santa Cecilia, Aloe Blacc, and Manu Chao. He is developing a feature film about Chicano activist Reies López Tijerina, who fought to restore land rights in New Mexico to descendants of Mexican families.

Such themes are embedded in “Sleep Dealer.” Before setting out on his virtual migration, Memo quarrels with his father, who wants him to stay in their hopeless cornfield. The old man asks, “Is our future a thing of the past?”

By the end, a wiser, wearier Memo earns the bittersweet hope of protagonists in so many immigrant dramas, imagined and real: “Maybe there’s a future for me here, on the edge of everything. A future with a past. If I connect. And fight.”