Documentary Looks at 'Xmas Without China'

Manufacturing Superpower's Products Pulled from under Family's Christmas Tree

BEIJING -- As American shoppers pinch pennies this holiday season, a new documentary takes a personal look at the U.S.-China trade deficit of over $220 billion by challenging a California family to make Christmas happen without anything labeled “Made in China.”

“Uh-oh, the laundry basket’s made in China!” says Tessa Jones, 5, as she and her parents Tim and Evelyn empty their Los Angeles home of Chinese goods in the pre-recession winter of 2007 at the height of a widespread scare about lead-tainted toys from the People’s Republic.

In the upcoming hour-long film Xmas Without China, the Joneses accept the China-purge challenge from filmmakers Tom Xia and Alicia Dwyer and discover their American Dream is inseparable from a giant pool of low-cost labor in a country they’ve never visited.

Without access to Chinese goods, the Joneses spend $166 on Mexican Christmas tree lights, make their breakfast toast in the oven and forego Xbox video gaming for the holiday season.

Not entirely original, as the 2007 book A Year Without 'Made in China' by American author Sara Bongiorni, covers similar ground, Xmas Without China brings Tom's Chinese family into the equation, too, giving an entirely different perspective.

Director and producer Dwyer said her goal was to put narrator and co-producer Xia in a position to explore the humor in navigating Sino-U.S. relations, these days often fraught with tension.

“Tom and his challenge give us an amazing opportunity to capture the absurdities of our time and to look at our fears from another angle,” Dwyer told The Hollywood Reporter.

As stay-at-home-mom Evelyn puts appliances and clothes made half a world away into a storage bin in front of their suburban L.A. home, she wonders aloud what part of the American Dream she and Tim, a television music composer, are passing on to Tessa and son Finley.

“That’s what scares me. We don’t make anything,” Tessa says of America and Americans, asking: “What is our place in this world?”

Xia, the film’s narrator and a naturalized U.S. citizen, provokes a different kind of reflection by turning the camera on his father Victor Xia, an acupuncturist who moved to the same area of sunny southern California from bitter cold northeastern China right after the pro-democracy movement was crushed in Beijing in 1989.

“There was definitely an appeal in the American Dream, but primarily my mom and dad were motivated by wanting to give me better opportunities,” said Xia, whose mom, Mary, now runs a shop selling Chinese jade, art and artifacts, including Chinese copies of paintings by European masters.

At a time when most Americans view China through the narrow lens of American television and Chinese consume images of and ideas about America from strictly censored state-run media, Xia hopes that his documentary, once finished, will appeal both on both sides of the Pacific.

“Chinese view a lot of documentaries about China as negative, but we’re confident that both sides will enjoy our film,” said Xia, adding that now that his parents are nearly finished building a new L.A. home they’re debating moving back to China, the 21st century land of opportunity.

“Just the other night, my dad told me that he doesn’t regret moving here but he said that if we didn’t stay in America he might have built an even bigger house in China today,” Xia said in a telephone interview.

Xia, Dwyer and co-producers brother Michael Dwyer and Juli Vizza have a promise of sales help from the Center for Asian American Media, a subsidiary of the U.S. Public Broadcasting Service. They also got $8,000 from the Pacific Pioneer Fund and won $2,500 for a second place finish at the 2010 Westdoc Pitchfest Conference in Los Angeles.

Produced thus far for $75,000 and awaiting additional funding, Xmas Without China, hopes to be ready in time for release in time for the 2011 holiday season. 

To get them closer to their goal, the filmmakers turned to grassroots funding website Kickstart, posting a trailer and promotional materials accessible via Internet links to anybody who likes what they see.

Dwyer, whose previous work includes the 2001 Academy Award-winning documentary Into the Arms of Strangers and the 2002 Emmy Award-winning HBO series Pandemic: Facing AIDS,” says the grassroots approach to documentary fundraising was new and exciting.

“People are excited about the project but also are wanting to get updates, so we’re planning on breaking out webisodes that won’t necessarily be a part of the final but could spark some conversations,” Dwyer says.

By the end of December, she and the Xmas Without China team will know if they’ve won full funding from the Independent Television Service, the PBS co-producing partner.