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.
Those involved with the film see the mission as two-fold. First, they would like to raise public awareness about how China's practices are directly affecting the American economy. Death by China establishes this necessity immediately after its title credits, as various "Black Friday" shoppers admit, with little concern, that most of their purchases were made in China.
"I'm fine with it. If the American people can't provide me with what I need, I gotta get it from China. It is what it is. I am just being truthful," says one such shopper.
Lee hopes the film will move people to pay more attention to the ramifications of their purchases.
"It does make a difference if you buy products that are not made in a democracy and don't respect workers rights," she says.
In addition to asking for more mindful shopping, the film urges viewers to press their politicians to take "top down" action with policy measures that would crack down on China's trade malfeasance.
"With Congress, we can't really get a vote on currency manipulation," says Ryan, who says he talks about the issue often as it directly affects his district's manufacturing community.
"I hope the movie is a catalyst to ramp up the kind of enforcement that is necessary and inspire a long-term strategy recognizing that China is here to stay and they are going to play hard for the foreseeable future."
The AFL-CIO will be working with local labor unions in Ohio to bring people to the screenings, and Congressman Ryan also attend one of the Ohio showings.
After the swing state tour, the film will open nationally, and those involved hope it will become "a key presidential issue," as Navarro puts it.
"We are actually trying to leverage policy here in a very dynamic way. We're not just throwing this movie out here."
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