Back to IndieWire

Meet the 2013 SXSW Filmmakers #44: Alicia Dwyer’s “Xmas Without China” Offers A Surprising Change of Pace for Documentarian

Meet the 2013 SXSW Filmmakers #44: Alicia Dwyer's "Xmas Without China" Offers A Surprising Change of Pace for Documentarian

On first glance, “Xmas Without China” seems to be a surprising next subject for Alicia Dwyer, the filmmaker who last brought us “Bully” and “Pandemic: Facing Aids.” But the film’s humor is filled with an undercurrent of social commentary, discussing America’s reliance on foreign goods and our holiday traditions that blend to make one of the festival’s more fascinating documentaries.

What it’s about: A Chinese immigrant challenges his American neighbors to survive the Christmas season without any Chinese products.

Tell Us About Yourself: Alicia’s work recently appeared in theaters nation-wide in BULLY,
distributed by The Weinstein Company, for which she directed key
material with the main character, Alex. Alicia was a director on THE
CALLING, a four-hour PBS series that was a flagship of the 2010
Independent Lens season. She was associate producer of the 2004 Emmy
Award-nominated HBO series PANDEMIC: FACING AIDS and of the 2001 Academy
Award-winning feature documentary INTO THE ARMS OF STRANGERS. In recent
years, Alicia helped start Veracity Productions, an independent
production company making cinema and media content for PBS, The Jim
Henson Company, The New York Times Magazine Online, Oprah.com, The
California Endowment and other non-profit organizations. Alicia was born
in Santa Cruz, California, lived in Australia, New York and West Berlin
as a child. She studied German and Politics at Princeton and received
her MFA in Film Production from USC.

What else do you want audiences to know about your film?
I have worked on films concerned with serious subjects like the
Holocaust and HIV/AIDS, bullying and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I
loved working on those films, but I found myself hungering for humor.
So, I was delighted when my brother and filmmaking partner Michael Dwyer
introduced me to his friend Tom Xia. Tom made me laugh, and when he
told me about his big idea to challenge his neighbors to a Christmas
without China, I thought, this is something worth following. Soon, we
found ourselves filming the improbable relationship between two families
living side by side but worlds apart. I am deeply grateful to both the
Xia and Jones families for allowing us into their lives, and for taking
us to unexpected places. I made this film with a fantastic team,
including co-producer/editor Juli Vizza, cinematographer/co-producer
Michael Dwyer and producer/main character Tom Xia.

What was your biggest challenge in developing this project? The concept of a Christmas without anything made in China touches on
fascinating issues – globalization, the intersection of cultures, and
shifts in our imaginings of the American dream – yet Tom Xia’s youthful
pop-culture-inspired impulse to challenge his neighbors was instinctive
and playful. My goal was to find how these themes naturally emerge out
of the unfolding of the characters’ stories, so the biggest challenge in
developing Xmas Without China was to strike the right tone for a film
that is a documentary comedy about serious issues we have with our

What would you like SXSW audiences to come away with after seeing your film? One of the most intriguing places that the story takes us is the
intersection of consumerism and citizenship in American life. “Who are
we if we don’t make anything anymore?” Evelyn Jones asks her neighbor
Tom Xia. Bravely taking on Tom’s challenge to empty their house of
Chinese stuff and to not buy any more during a Christmas season, the
Jones family experiences the sheer material difficulty of living without
so many everyday things. This is a considerable change for them,
highlighting our dependence on cheaply made stuff, but what particularly
strikes me is that the Joneses’ process also illuminates spiritual
aspects of our consumer-driven life. If we can’t put up Christmas
lights and buy presents, how do we celebrate Christmas? Meanwhile, as
Chinese immigrants, Tom’s family, in seeking their American dream to
build a Colonial style home and even decorate their first enormous
Christmas tree, are finding themselves embroiled in similar questions as
they try in some ways to keep up with the Joneses. When Evelyn asks
Tom if he’s an American citizen, his crisis around his identity brings
together for me the material and spiritual questions, like what does it
mean to be American in a culture where, as economist Raj Patel suggests,
we are often encouraged to think of ourselves less as citizens and more
as consumers?

What do you have in the works?

We are in post-production on a
documentary funded by ITVS currently titled Nine to Ninety about a
family dealing with aging. After five years of living with their
daughter in California, 89-year old Phyllis and her husband Joe (90) are
faced with the challenge of deciding if they must part after 62 years
of marriage. Hoping to lessen the burden on one daughter, Phyllis
considers leaving her husband to live with their other daughter in
Pennsylvania. http://www.itvs.org/films/nine-to-ninety

We are also poised to go into production on a fiction feature entitled
Pocha. A taut, slow-burning thriller, Pocha is the transformative story
of a strong-willed, Mexican-American immigrant named Claudia Samaniega.
After being deported from the US for credit card fraud, Claudia returns
to her estranged father’s cattle ranch in northern Mexico where she
partners with a small-time smuggler who promises to get her back to
America if she helps him run product through her father’s ranch.

Indiewire invited SXSW directors to tell us about their films,
including what inspired them, the challenges they faced and what they’re
doing next. We’ll be publishing their responses leading up to the 2013

 Keep checking HERE every day up to the launch of the festival on March 8 for the latest profiles.

Sign Up: Stay on top of the latest breaking film and TV news! Sign up for our Email Newsletters here.

This Article is related to: Festivals and tagged ,

Get The Latest IndieWire Alerts And Newsletters Delivered Directly To Your Inbox