Death by China may be Peter Navarro’s directorial debut, but he’s already learning how the movie criticism game works.
Navarro’s film, available now on DVD and soon via Netflix, tracks how unfair trade practices embraced by China are killing American jobs and the U.S. economy as a whole. Some critics hammered the film for being one-sided, a charge rarely leveled against liberal documentaries like Gasland and An Inconvenient Truth.
“I’m telling the absolute truth,” Navarro tells Big Hollywood. “What’s the other side of currency manipulation, or taking organs from Falun Gong members, or being the most polluted country,” he asks, ticking off major themes captured in his film.
Death by China is an unflinching look at how trade relations between the U.S. and the Communist powerhouse has been a one-sided affair, and how American politicians, like former President Bill Clinton, have only made matters worse.
The film stems, in part, from a book Navarro wrote on the subject. He’s an economist and professor by trade, but between his research on the subject and media training he says the transition to the director’s chair wasn’t daunting.
“As a professor I’ve produced a lot of multimedia materials for the classroom … I’m pretty good at telling a story,” he says. What worried him was telling a visually engaging story, one that didn’t reveal his lack of directorial experience. He discovered plenty of top-notch technicians more than eager to lend a hand.
“So many guys in Hollywood are under-employed, they can work on the side for cheap,” he says. “Everybody who worked on the film was supportive of the message. That helped.”
Navarro, who describes himself as a Democrat, contends his film rises above ideological bickering.
“It is non-partisan, which is difficult to do these days,” he says. “It’s not about left or right, it’s right or wrong.”
The director landed some politicians from both sides of the aisle for the film, but he grumbles over not getting N.Y. Sen. Chuck Schumer on video for the film.
“He basically gave us the runaround,” he says.
Navarro secured a “name” narrator for the project, one that undercuts the potential argument that he’s telling a right-of-center tale no matter his personal politics. Progressive actor Martin Sheen lends his voice to Death by China, an act the veteran performer joked wouldn’t do his career any favors.
“He’s fearless,” the director says of Sheen. “This is not the kind of film that Hollywood actors are going to wanna do if they care about doing work in China … the first thing [Sheen] said to me was, ‘I’ll never work in China now.'”
Navarro says his transition to the filmmaking realm came, in part, thanks to movies like An Inconvenient Truth and Inside Job. He watched as those documentaries impacted the national discourse, and he hoped to do the same.
“You have to go outside the book format if you want to make a difference,” he says. That doesn’t mean theaters or distributions will embrace a project like Death by China.
“I’ve chosen a topic that’s too hot to handle for mainstream Hollywood,” he says, but adds the film did get released in 50 cities even if he couldn’t get his film on either HBO or Showtime.
No matter how people see Death by China, Navarro is convinced they’ll be impacted by the experience.
“Every time I hosted a [screening] … people in that audience, they were changed forever. They’ll never shop the way they shop [now],” he says.