Interview with Alex Rivera – to the infinite Sleep Dealer and Beyond

riverapic1Inquiring minds want to know, what has the Peruvian-American multi-media artist and filmmaker of the radical film Sleep Dealer been up to since he broke through at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival.  I had a chance to catch up with Alex and find out what’s shaking.

Sleep Dealer had been percolating through development for a few years when it participated in the 2001 Sundance Institute Screenwriters lab.  It premiered in the festival’s US Dramatic Competition in 2008 where it was bestowed with the Waldo Screenwriting Award for Alex and his co-writer David Riker.  The ambitious and thoughtful genre bender (eco/romance/sci-fi/adventure/socio-political thriller), was a uniquely original feature debut which earned him lots of buzz including a spot on Variety’s Ten Directors to Watch. On the heels of all the Sundance momentum, Alex was courted around town for various projects, mostly speculative script work (aka free labor).  One of the projects he became attached to write and direct was a film based on the Wired article “La Vida Robot,” then being produced by Salma Hayek and John Wells.  Meanwhile, Sleep Dealer was released by Maya Entertainment in April 2009. Unfortunately, Maya’s theatrical releases struggled to make much profit (the company quietly shuttered last year to dissolve its debt). Sleep Dealer averaged 2k in its 18 booked theaters NY/LA  Opening Weekend engagement. My opinion?  Lack of a strong and savvy marketing campaign along with Maya’s model of booking the film at its out of the way fringe theater markets hurt the film’s shot at targeting the audience it eventually found elsewhere.  And where it did find a cultish nerd-like audience was in the educational space.  Alex has traveled to over 50 campuses and continues to do so in order to discuss and engage with the complex layers and themes the film generates – a testament to the heavily research based scientific, sociological and immigration alchemy of the film.   Let’s check in, shall we?  {redacted transcription of our recorded conversation}.

sundanceWhat are some of the exciting things you’ve worked on immediately after Sleep Dealer?  

David Riker and I developed a TV series.  It’s called “Blink!” It’s about a woman who suffers a strange accident, loses her eyesight, and is given digital retinas, a technology that is currently being developed.  Shortly after she starts to see again, she realizes something is terribly wrong – her head is transmitting.  You can see what she sees through a live video feed.  She doesn’t know if her eyes are malfunctioning, if she’s been ‘hacked,’ etc.  The show follows Blink as she tries to unravel what’s inside her head and the possibility that she is part of a conspiracy that might even be altering her reality.   We still have the material and are looking for a partner for it, we’ve had different partners along the way.

One of the more surprising developments for me was an ongoing collaboration with the community of activists working around the cause of immigration.  The National Day Laborer Organizing Network became aware of my work through Sleep Dealer.  They are really active working with day laborers in this grassroots way, but they also have a unique cultural strategy.  They happened to be in touch with Manu Chao, the legendary and popular World music artist, who in his work sings about the experience of migration. They put me in touch with him and we produced a video in Arizona. We did the same thing with Ana Tijoux, a Latin Hip Hop artist, and we are dialoging with other artists like Zack de Rocha and La Santa Cecilia, a local LA group Latino music mashup group.  It’s been deeply fulfilling not going through agencies but rather activists that are committed to the same values that I am committed to.  So that kind of has been my reality; partly working with these activist groups on these cultural projects, partly shopping around ideas in this system like the Sci-Fi TV series, and partly supporting Sleep Dealers’s after life.

You also work with other filmmakers on an ongoing basis, talk about your collective:  

 Screen Shot 2013-02-27 at 10.07.05 AMI’ve been working with other filmmakers for the past 14 years through a small distribution company called SubCine, like subliminal, subliminated.  The idea behind the name is that experimental films, documentaries and risky fiction films are already shut out of the mainstream film culture, so then if you are making that kind of work from the Latino perspective its yet another level of marginalization.  Its like we are the outsiders of the outsiders.  It’s an exciting place to be, to think, imagine and attack from.  We are a small collective of filmmakers like myself, Jim Mendiola Gregorio Rocha, Jesse Lerner, Cristina Ibarra, Natalia Almada, Dolissa Medina.   A lot of us were making our films in the 90s and selling our films individually.  We decided that instead of selling them individually, to compile a catalog together.  From one day to the next, a distributor was born.  We have a warehouse that keeps the films, does all the fulfillment and billing so we don’t have to lick the stamps anymore. Most traditional distributors pay filmmakers 40% minus expenses.  We pay 70% with no expenses taken out of that.   We are a very slender operation but set up to make the sales and get the money to the filmmakers. Right now we have almost 50 films in the catalog and over 20 filmmakers that we work with.  I manage that on a month to month basis as one of my many other side projects.  It’s been super fulfilling because its getting the films seen. They are sold to only a little segment; the libraries, universities and colleges to be used in classroom.   Those institutions will pay $300 more or less for a DVD because they are using it in the institutional context. Then that work is seen by young people hungry to learn, whose ideas about the world and ideas about film are being shaped, so its a win-win-win.

That’s an interesting model, you think there is room for more of these kind of distribution platforms for Latino filmmakers?

We were inspired by New Day Films, a social issue documentary distribution collective. It’s a lot of the same thought; Lets not work alone, lets work together.  If you sell your film maybe the person who bought it would want to buy my film. It’s like this collective spirit of a distributor that’s owned by the filmmakers.  The educational market doesn’t sound glamorous, but it’s absolutely essential for students to see the wide variety of films and it gets to them when their brains are soft and squishy and malleable.  It’s an influential moment to reach that audience.  And they still pay – librarians still care about getting a licensed copy of a film for their collection and are willing to pay for it.  In a day and age when nobody seems to get paid, this market is a unique space to be.

With all these side projects and day to day busy-ness and constant fellow filmmaker collaboration and stimulation how do you concentrate on developing your own projects and tell us what personal project are you focusing on now?

File photo of Ries Lopez Tijerina
Reies Lopez Tijerina

I have a curious mind and active imagination, which is a curse and a blessing.   Definitely over the years I have had many ideas and I try to do everything I just mentioned plus develop my own material.  About a year ago I got interested in the story of a legendary Chicano activist – somebody who should be as well known as Martin Luther King, Malcolm X or Cesar Chavez but who is not.  His name is Reies López Tijerina.  He led an armed movement in New Mexico to reclaim part of the land for the original Mexican families that had settled there before it was the United States – the land that was stolen after the war with Mexico. Tijerina is a fascinating character and there are parts of his story that are like a Quentin Tarantino film. Like he would wear a suit in the desert while armed, trying to arrest police officers….it has that kind of great genre and humor in it, but it also taps into extraordinary realities and histories about The Southwest which have, for the most part, been forgotten.

How much does the general public know about this man?

I think the general public knows close to nothing. People who study Chicano history would run into his story but not everybody even in that category…We live in a strange age where there are 53 million Latinos in this country and yet if you ask, ‘Who are some great Latino figures in U.S. history?’ most folks can’t name five.  Whether it’s the result of a concerted effort or not, the history is missing.  I mean, you look at Arizona and they are banning books about Chicano history, you start to think maybe it is concerted.  Either way, you don’t get 50 million people here overnight.  There’s a long history that has been erased and its part of the duty of artists who define themselves as Latino to rescue parts of that history because we deserve to know it.  Tijerina is one of those incendiary, wild and fantastic stories and there should be many films about it and yet it is exactly the opposite.  He’s nearly completely forgotten and he’s not the only one, there is a whole series of these kind of figures that have been swept under the rug.  It’s a problem and also an opportunity because it is definitely time now to think of ways that are visually exciting to tell these stories.  When I talk about history, it’s not to put someone to sleep, its not a Ken Burns treatment. This is life and death, sex, people fighting over billions of dollars that are at stake, the future of the country  – these are high stakes, thrilling stories going back to days of the Conquest up until today.

How would you go about rescuing these histories and making it modern, relevant and accessible in order to capture people’s interest in unknown historical figures?

 All the way through, if you look at any chapter in Latino history, and as I would define it, it starts with the conquest when the Spanish meet Native Americans and start to kill each other and enslave each other and make babies together and create a whole new race  -is there anything more Shakespearean? More dramatic?   No.  Obviously Mel Gibson took a stab at that time period with Apocalpyto, which was wildly successful commercially.  Why? Because he used a kind of genre approach.  It’s not a historical film, it’s an action film. Now I didn’t love the film but I can respect that it’s a piece of pop culture that is also telling a part of history.  Do I love its point of view? No.  But I respect the craft.  And so starting with that going up to, anywhere you drop the needle on Latino history there is something equally dramatic going on..…In the US Mexico war countless moments and characters and stories could be told through the genre of a heightened western that would be incredible.  Quentin Tarantino has just shown that films that are set in historical contexts but that us the energy and aesthetics of genre filmmaking can be wildly successful.  So the approach needs to be creative, elevated, the approach needs to push the envelope.  You can mine these histories for all kinds of fantastic narratives.  And, of course, the future can be mined as well.


Thank you Alex for sharing!  Suerte compa!


Elliot and his MaFrom Elliot Loves
Elliot and his Ma
From Elliot Loves

I recently contributed to a Top 5 Latino Films of 2012 on Indiewire’s Latinobuzz blog.  Among the Programmers’ picks were films from Chile, Brazil, Mexico, Cuba and Peru, alongside U.S. films like Filly Brown.  In fact, when asked for my list, I thought I needed to make a statement by pointing out I picked all “American” Latino films. The exercise indicated once again a lot of us are not on the same page when it comes to the definition of the term “Latino”.   As filmmaker, Alex Rivera (Sleep Dealer) commented on the post, “It’s important to have a term that describes the diaspora community here in the U.S.  Latinos in the U.S. face very different challenges and opportunities than Latin Americans… terms of tracking what’s happening in film, we need this distinction, the way there’s a very clear distinction between African Cinema and African-American Cinema.

I couldn’t agree more.  Even if it still makes for a fairly broad category to band together the vastly different and culturally rich spectrum of “Latin roots,” at least the unifying reference that can serve as glue or a constant, and help level and monitor the landscape within the context of film, is the social/political experience of life in The United States.  It’s these vibrant and unique bi-cultural stories and voices that must be shepherded through the bottleneck gates towards distribution.  More so because these groups are largely under-represented or marginalized in the main arteries of film distribution channels.  With a growing number of new alternative models of distribution available and the power of the audience/consumer, now more than ever, we can demand our content.

So with that, let’s take a closer look at my Top 5 American Latino Films of 2012 – all of which compellingly portray singular, rarely-represented walks of life and perspectives – and in each case the filmmaker’s personal and distinct multi-cultural makeup adds to the film’s alchemy.  Every film on this list has bowed at film festivals and only two of them have had a very limited theatrical run. In a sense, these films have been born but now its time to help these babies walk and talk. There’s no better way than today’s word of mouth: the social media. Please click on the films’ links to follow and interact with the film’s life and if you dig it, be proactive and support these films to help them reach their audience.

A ver ~

Love_Concord_poster5.  Love, Concord  -written and directed by Gustavo Guardado, Jr. (1st generation Salvadoran-American from Concord, California, where most of the film was shot).

Festivals: NY Latino International Film Festival (world premiere) and stay tuned for future festivals this Spring 2013.

Why it stands out:  Of all the films on this list this might have the biggest commercial potential because of the broad appeal of the classic, wholesome high school coming of ager comedy genre.  Filmmaker Guardado, Jr., who is a video teacher at Heritage High School by day, injects a modern, refreshing representation and empathetic, teen authenticity to the formula.  For far too long this type of movie has been domineered by slender-shaped Anglo protagonists with your token black/brown/gay supporting characters. And while it is awesome to see brown leads; curvy, nerdy cute girl played by Angelina Leon and class clown/jock played by Jorge Diaz, at the epicenter of this story, it’s more importantly a perfectly pitched sweet, funny and ‘real’ high school romantic comedy that resonates.  Just check out the trailer here.  I reviewed it earlier this year here.

Angelina Leon and Jorge Diaz - the two charming leads of Love, Concord
Angelina Leon and Jorge Diaz – the two charming leads of Love, Concord

Where to see it now:  Like I say, this is especially ripe for mainstream release opportunities (cable/DVD/VOD).  So far the film had a one night screening in its hometown sponsored by Brenden theaters.  The filmmaker is currently approaching other local theaters to arrange more screenings.  Interested parties (festivals/distributors/PR) can email the filmmaker directly at:

Links:  Facebook, Twitter, YouTube

Hearing what life events he has missed since he left town from La viejita
Hearing what life events he has missed since he left town from La viejita in Aqui y Alla

4.  Aqui y Alla (Here & There) – written and directed by Antonio Mendez Esparza (Raised in Madrid and has lived in Mexico and NYC – film shot in Mexico)

Festivals: 45 –  among them, Critics Week at Cannes (world premiere), San Sebastian, AFI, Morelia, Mar de Plata, Dubai, Lone Star Festival.

Why it stands out:  The magnetic non-professional acting ensemble and the film’s doc-like aesthetic subtly immerses the audience into the psychological aftermath of a story rarely told onscreen.  Quite simply it’s about a Mexican father who has recently returned to his family after being away in the states for a long time.  The film fills a void within the canons of the Mexican immigrant story.  There’s so much more than the grueling border-crossing journey, which is one small part of the ‘immigrant experience’.  The more opportunities and support Latino filmmakers can reach to tell their stories, the more their storytelling can evolve to truly capture the whole context.   It’s only recently that I’ve started seeing some reflection on those families of immigrants who stay behind and the generation-spanning social effects – and I’m not only talking within US and Mexico panorama.  In 2009 Antonio’s short film, Una Y Otra Vez garnered him much attention as it traveled to many festivals worldwide.  It probably helped give him a profile when it came time to submit his first feature.   Antonio is currently busy with the limited release of his film and is also already at work on his next project; a mother and son story titled, Saudade.

Where to see it now:  You are in luck if you are in NY!  The film premieres in three different venues for limited release NOW.  Elinor Bunin Monroe Film Center at Lincoln Center, the reRun Theater in Dumbo, and the Jackson Heights Cinema. (Click on links for tickets and showtimes).

Links:  Website, Facebook, Twitter

From Elliot Loves
From Elliot Loves

3.  Elliot Loves – written and directed by Terracino (Dominican New Yorker, film shot in Harlem)

Festivals:  Over 50 film festivals, among them, Miami Gay & Lesbian Film Festival in May (World Premiere); New York International Latino Film Festival, Outfest, San Francisco Frameline,  Global Film Festival in Dominican Republic.

Why it stands out:  Elliot.  He is as lovable and charming as he is emotionally conflicted and flawed.  We meet him as a sweet, precocious boy growing up in Harlem with his young, single mother, an ill-equipped parent who suffers from a co-dependency on a string of deadbeat-boyfriends.  As we jump forward to Elliot’s adult years, his strained relationship with his mother and deeply rooted childhood fears and dreams continue to play a role in how he pursues love.   How else do I put it, I’ve never seen as real of a depiction of a ‘gay cholo’.  I enjoyed the romantic dalliances – especially the steamy love scenes, the old school mano-a-mano fights on the street, and the drama that while zany, eschews any of the flamboyant queen diva archetypes or melodrama we’ve seen associated with gays before.   Like Mosquita y Mari (next on the list) the gay Latino niche has huge potential.  For years, gay representation has been relegated to background or one dimensional characters, or lead roles in a serious coming out/AIDs dramas.  But what about mainstream genres like romantic comedies?   When a film like Elliot Loves comes around, no wonder it is fiercely celebrated by the gay community and film festival circuit.  At the end of the day though, the storyline’s universal resonance (looking for love) is what hits a chord with gay AND straight audiences alike.


Where to see it now:  Elliot Loves sold for worldwide distribution to TLA last May.  Thanks to the successful Kickstarter campaign during production, distributors had been tracking the film early on. Now available on DVD, Amazon and iTunes!  A major cable broadcast expected Summer 2013 followed by Netflix debut.  You can also request a screening at your local theater through Tugg.

2. Mosquita y Mari – written and directed by Aurora Guerrero (Chicana from the Bay, film shot in LA)

Festivals: A whopping 110 festivals, both mainstream and queer including Sundance (world premiere), San Francisco International, Seattle, Sarasota, Melbourne, Sao Paolo….

Why it stands out:  I’ve long wanted to articulate that extra magical ingredient and feeling you get when you watch something and find it so incredibly in tune with a part of you.  As a first generation Mexican-American I find many of these moments related in Mosquita y Mari.  The log line seems simple enough; Two high school Chicanas, one square, one street, make friends and come of age in LA.   The palpable emotion and sensitivity in portraying adolescent romance, sexual impulses and tensions with parents who shoulder you with the heavy pressure of achieving a better life on behalf of all your ancestors, drives the heart and veracity of the story. The way they talk, look, the music they listen to, is all me.  I’m sure I’m not the only chicanita who feels that way either.  When film speaks to you on a specific level – it’s a wonderful feeling of connectedness. Again, early awareness helps; Guerrero worked on getting this film made for several years, reaching out and applying to as many non-profit partners for assistance, including Sundance Institute’s Native Screenwriters lab and San Francisco Film Society’s robust year round Filmmaker grants.  Combined with her Kickstarter campaign launched while finishing production, the film attracted attention early on, making it easier for film festivals to track.  Guerrero is currently at work with her next feature, Los Valientes which recently obtained a grant from San Francisco Film Society.


Where to see it now: DVD/internet/broadcast rights sold to Wolfe Releasing earlier this year.  Let the filmmakers know you want to see it!  Express your interest on their film site to purchase a DVD  (late 2013) and or request a screening of the film near you.  This information will help their ongoing self-release theatrical strategy in partnership with Film Collaborative a non-profit film distribution/consultant outfit catering to specialty releases that is helping the film book theaters and educational outlets.  HBO broadcast also in the future late 2013.

Links:  Facebook, Twitter, Website

Poster designed by Sonny Kay.  Click on image to see more of his badass art
Poster designed by Sonny Kay. Click on image to see more of his badass art

1.  Los Chidos, written and directed by Omar Rodriguez Lopez (Puerto-Rican, grew up in El Paso, shot the film in Mexico, citizen of the world)

Festivals: SXSW (world premiere), NY Latino International Film Festival, Rio, Santa Fe Independent, Hola Mexico (Australia).

Check out the recently released trailer here:

Why it stands out:  Provocative genre.  Whether it incites a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ reception, taboo-defying, wicked satire and social and political commentary under an unsettling visually graphic aesthetic, elicits a fervent reaction and guarantees a degree of attention.  ORL is not one to hold anything back and you can feel an exhilarating rush as he discovers and makes the tools of the visual medium his own to challenge and trans-mutate society’s views about identity, religion and sex, among other hot-button issues.  Like the poster tag reads (translated), “Those who don’t criticize their culture don’t love their mother”, signaling the film’s unrelenting attack on every stereotype ever pitted to lazy, homophobic, incestuous, thieving, murdering, macho Mexicans. There’s no doubt his prolific music career (The Mars Volta, currently Bosnian Rainbows) has spawned a specific audience for his work as an uncompromising artist.  This built-in audience will be the first to give flight to his flourishing career turn as filmmaker.  I personally can’t wait to see future films as I bet he’s only getting started in this arena and has so much to say.  Omar returns to his hometown of El Paso next month to begin shooting Niño de la Esperanza.

Where to see it now:  Indiewire recently included Los Chidos in their Top Ten Undistributed Films of 2012 piece.  So unless a savvy and daring outfit (like Oscilloscope) picks it up, expect ORLP and music management/record label, Sargent House to self-distribute as they are doing with Omar’s 2010 film, the psychedelic identity trip, The Sentimental Engine Slayer (You can buy the DVD, and cool poster art and t-shirt for $35 here). These guys are the perfect example of D2F (Direct to Fan) distribution at work.

Links:  Facebook, Website

Next up, top 5 American Latino films to watch out for in 2013!