Noted Filmmaker Holds Talk at Ramapo College

Advancements in technology and the immigration experience will help to shape the future of American society, an award-winning filmmaker told Ramapo students on Nov. 7.

Alex Rivera is a recipient of the Schomburg Award, which recognizes successful scholars who demonstrate awareness of diversity and minority issues through artistic expression. Rivera discussed his films and projects, as well as his perspective on emerging technologies' impact on borders, immigration and globalization.

"I'm pretty much focused for 20 years now on the issue of immigration, and a bunch of ways of telling stories," Rivera said.

A biography on Rivera's website states, "Over the past 15 years he's been making work that illuminates two massive and parallel realities: the globalization of information through the internet, and the globalization of families, and communities, through mass migration."

"Films instead of term papers"

Rivera began studying political science and media theory at Hampshire College, and said he always opted to produce films in the place of term papers. His first film was ," which draws a parallel between the history of the potato and the immigration of Rivera's father to the United States from Peru. Rivera described the film as an "ethnography."

Since the creation of ," Rivera has produced nearly a dozen other films. Many of them have been shown at prestigious venues, including the Sundance Film Festival, the Berlin International Film Festival, the Guggenheim Museum and the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

In addition to being a filmmaker, Rivera is also the editor of Invisible America, a web-based media company. According to the company's website, its mission is "to use any and all forms of media-internet, animation, documentary, narrative-to contemplate our new, twisted, and ultimately surreal American Reality."

Voices of undocumented immigrants

During the 90-minute talk, the audience was able to explore Rivera's creative process in being a digital filmmaker. In brainstorming the process of creating film, Rivera said that he has "two impulses" that occur: "one is an argument, something that [he] wants to say" and the other is "the willingness to be surprised." 

A surprise he found in creating the three-part mini documentary "Borders" was when he approached a couple embracing at the Mexican border, extending their arms through the narrow spaces of the barrier's bars. It is a spot where separated families meet to visit.

"I knew the location," Rivera said. "But I didn't know the story. I wanted to be surprised."

The 9-minute piece, produced for the Public Broadcasting Service, consists of three individual stories and embodies the idea of borders: Mexican families reuniting at the Mexican border, empty containers being stacked on the horizon of Newark, N.J., and the transport of people and trade through the Mexican-Guatemalan border.

In under 10 minutes, Rivera wanted to portray three ideas: one, "borders are very, very closed for people," two, "borders are very, very open to trade, produce and commerce" and finally, "people want the same freedoms as products."

Adriah Rolling, a student and Newark resident, said that Rivera's account of multiple empty containers accumulating in her neighborhood, a result of failed economic policies in recent years, was accurate. She didn't know that squatters were living there.

"As a resident of Newark, I'm really surprised to know that homeless people are living in these containers that are taking over," Rolling said. "What also interested me was learning that trash was the number export out of the port that's so close to my hometown."

Rivera also filmed a music video for "El by La Santa Cecilia. The video follows the narrative of an undocumented immigrant family who are apprehended by Immigration and Customs Enforcement. At the end of the video, Rivera said that an estimated 400,000 people are deported from the United States every year. Many of the actors in the video were undocumented, or had relatives who were undocumented.

"The young woman featured in the music video actually saw her parents being taken away on television while she was being babysat," Rivera said.

From science fiction to reality

Rivera's most prestigious film, "Sleep Dealer," won several awards, including the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award and the Alfred P. Sloan Prize. The film, which combines the current issue of U.S. immigration with thrilling sci-fi elements, was called "impressive" and "eye-opening" by Jason Silverman in a review for Wired Magazine.

"Sleep Dealer serves up a radical vision of a troubling tomorrow, injecting viewers into a high-tech, developing-world future," Silverman wrote.

From Rivera's perspective, technology and immigration coincide and together will affect the direction of American society. Rivera foreshadows that advancements in technology that many believe to be mere science fiction may soon become reality.

"Digital access will be the center with controlling people's movements," Rivera said. "Ultimately, the border will become the body."

Rivera explained how the danger of new technologies relates to the strife of undocumented immigrants, mentioning the hi-tech methods of tracking down illegal residents. He mentioned how X-ray technology used to find immigrants hiding in trucks transporting bananas and other products is now used by transportation security officials. 

"Ten years ago they used it there [on the border]," he said. "Now they're in our airports."

Rivera said he thinks that these methods of controlling immigration and the technology they involve will inevitably be used to subtly control and impose surveillance on the American people.

"Immigration will determine the future of this country," Rivera said. "It's already happened."

Students from Professor Edna Negron's Online Journalism class contributed to this report. It was originally published online on The Ramapo Record website.