Most documentaries gain acclaim and financial support by cycling through the film festival circuit. Author, economist, and policy wonk Peter Navarro is resisting this track, taking his film Death by China on a screening tour through Ohio towns, large and small, after its Los Angeles premiere last Friday and New York premiere this Friday.
While documentaries usually espouse some message or cause—social, political or otherwise—Navarro sees his film to be more urgent. Death by China is critically important to November's election, he says, hence its unconventional promotion strategy.
"My view is that whoever wins Ohio will win the presidential race. Our objective going into Ohio is to elevate the issue of trade reform with China to the top of the checklist of presidential campaign issues," Navarro says.
The film, based on a book for the same title that was co-written by Navarro, is a roaring indictment on China for its alleged illegal trade practices, human rights abuses, environmental exploitations, intellectual theft, and currency manipulation that have allowed it to steal desperately-needed jobs and prosperity from the good ol' U.S. of A.
In its review, industry rag Hollywood Reporter warned that Death by China's "legitimate, even urgent concerns" are bogged down by its "heavy-handed" delivery. However, Navarro says he expects to hear that his film is too alarmist.
"That critique often comes either from the corporate lobbyists who have an interest in staying in China or the media journalists who buy into that," he said. "The people who watch this film, our citizens, when they see this, they get it. The people who are not getting it, or who don't want to get it, are the people who are running this country."
After Ohio, screening tours through Michigan and Pennsylvania are in the works.
"We are hitting the swing states in the campaign in the hopes that we will encourage the presidential candidates to give us very specific proposals about what they're going to do about our trade imbalance with China."
An unlikely band of gloom-and-doomers join forces in the film: Democratic and Republican politicians; labor leader Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO; large scale manufacture CEOs and small business owners; academic types; and even a Chinese dissident who endured the harsh labor practices first hand.
"All of the people who appeared in this film talking about this issue desperately want to get this message out," says Navarro.
Thea Lee, AFL-CIO policy director and chief international economist, explains why her organization got involved with the film. "Certainly this issue of unfair trade with China is very important to our members," she says.
The AFL-CIO has long been stumping tougher enforcement on Chinese trade. Lee got to know Navarro while testifying alongside him in front of Congress. "I'm glad to see he is working so hard to bring attention to this issues."
Participating in the film was also an easy sell for Ohio Democrat Rep. Tim Ryan, "When China is circumventing the rules and ignoring the rules, I have an issue with that and we are going to speak out about it," he says.
Death by China largely blames the 2001 World Trade Organization agreement for giving China the unfair advantages the country now enjoys. It explains that the bipartisan deal was sold to the public as an arrangement that would bring prosperity to all. In actuality, says the film, only the top echelon of political leaders and multinational corporations have been able to reap its benefits, while the rest of Americans have seen their factories and jobs shipped overseas—and that's not to mention the abuses Chinese laborers now suffer at the hands of a globalized economy.