DETROIT — When the world shut down in 2020, New York City-based filmmaker David Siev came home to Bad Axe, the small town in Michigan's Thumb where he was born and raised, and started filming his family.
At first, he wasn't sure exactly what he was documenting. But over a number of months, a storyline began to emerge: about a family sticking together through unprecedented turbulence, about small business owners navigating a global pandemic in rural Michigan, about racism and division in small-town America, and about the promise and prosperity of the American dream.
That movie is "Bad Axe," and after a wave of critical acclaim and success on the film festival circuit, it hit screens nationwide last week.
"I initially had no intention of making a documentary," says Siev, on a Zoom call recently from his apartment in Astoria, Queens, following an extensive coast-to-coast tour with his film. "In those early days, I just sat down with my parents and I wanted to get this oral history of how their restaurant came to be. I thought I was just shooting this footage as a means for research to write a script."
As weeks turned into months, however, the story grew.
The Siev family's Bad Axe restaurant, Rachel's Bar and Grill, closed to in-person dining due to pandemic orders and could only service carryout customers. As the summer came, racial tensions in the wake of George Floyd's killing escalated both nationally and locally and the Sievs, a Cambodian Mexican American family, were targeted in their community for their support of the Black Lives Matter movement.
The filming of the movie becomes a point of contention within the movie, as townsfolk grow suspicious of their portrayal on screen as word of the movie gets out. And the Sievs — mom Rachel, father Chun and their four children — try to balance work, their lives, the political climate in a heated election year, the pandemic and their sanity in an increasingly difficult, stressful and hostile environment.
For Siev, it's a deeply personal work, but it's also one that transcends boundaries of race, class and geography.
"I hope this film really opens up people's eyes in terms of what the American experience is," he says. "I say that in the sense that our family is just as American as any family living in Bad Axe, and our experience is a part of what it means to be American."
Passion in film
Siev grew up going to movies at the two-screen movie theater on Huron Avenue in downtown Bad Axe, across the street from the police department and a block away from Pete's Bar, a local watering hole. He remembers seeing the "Lord of the Rings" movies and the "Star Wars" prequels there on the big screen.
But he didn't take film seriously as a career path until he took a film class at University of Michigan and was shown movies like "Citizen Kane" and "The Searchers."
"That's when I first realized how much passion had to go into filmmaking," says Siev, 29. "I always really loved movies, but being in film school, you begin to have an appreciation for the art, and that's when you can venture on your own and find films that resonate with you and that you love."
He took on film as a major and after graduation moved to Los Angeles where he worked as a production assistant on "FABlife," a daytime talk show hosted by Tyra Banks and Chrissy Teigen. The show was canceled after its first season.
He then picked up a job working under "Jackass" impresario Jeff Tremaine at his production company, Gorilla Flicks, where he worked on MTV's internet clips show "Ridiculousness" and on Tremaine's 2019 Mötley Crüe biopic "The Dirt."
Siev credits Tremaine with teaching him the ropes of filmmaking.
"Even though what I do might seem so different from what Jeff does, he really taught me so much about what it means to be a director, as far as being a great leader and being collaborative," he says. Tremaine carries an executive producer credit on "Bad Axe."
While working with Tremaine, Siev made his 2018 short film "Year Zero." It is inspired by his father Chun, who survived the mass killings in his home country of Cambodia in the 1970s. Siev cast his father in the film, and the experience helped him better understand the sacrifice his father made and what he escaped to come to America and put down roots in Michigan.
Chun was a tae kwon do instructor when he met Jaclyn, a Detroit-bred Mexican American. After living in Romeo the couple settled in Bad Axe, population 3,000 and some change, in a two-bedroom home. They had four children, and David spent the first 10 years of his life sleeping on a bedroom floor.
Chun and Rachel ran a doughnut and sweet shop, which they eventually transformed into Rachel's, a family restaurant with a wide-ranging menu of American, Mexican and Asian fare and a full bar. The rice bowls come recommended, as do the specialty drinks.
Everything was fine. Then the pandemic happened, and everything changed.
Michigan on screen
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March 2020, Siev came home, uncertain of what lay ahead for him in New York. And that's when he started filming, which his family was used to from him.
As things narratively began taking shape, Siev cut together a trailer for his film and launched a $30,000 online fundraising campaign.
That's when word got out about his movie, and the Sievs became targets. Individuals seen in the film — including armed protesters at a Black Lives Matter rally — became concerned about their and their town's portrayal in the film.
Social media threats poured in and community members threatened to boycott the restaurant, and members of Siev's family were followed by mysterious vehicles at night. Lives and livelihoods were at stake.
Siev's reaction was to keep filming, which leads to one of the film's most poignant moments, when Siev's mom explains to her son that he doesn't have to live in town and deal with fallout from the movie, but they do.
"For me personally, it never became a question of whether to carry on and continue making this film; I was going to do that anyway. But the question that did pose itself was, 'am I going to put this film out there,' " says Siev, who shot more than 350 hours of footage for the film. "I was never going to put the film out there for the world to see unless my family was all on board and trusted what I was doing."
That approval came and the temperature around the film, especially in Bad Axe, cooled down once it started being shown earlier this year. It's a loving, if conflicted, portrait of the town, warts and all, that is only strengthened by its unflinching nature.
After the film was picked up by IFC Films following its world premiere at March's South by Southwest festival, Siev showed it to backers and members of the community in May at the Bad Axe Theatre, the same theater where he grew up seeing movies and where the film is now showing.
Nicole Franzel, a family friend from neighboring Ubly who was a contributor to the film's online fundraising campaign, is one of the backers who was shown the movie in May.
"The film is so raw. It's so real. It's unbelievably emotional. I'm laughing with them, I'm crying with them, I'm rooting for them," says Franzel, a former winner of the CBS reality show "Big Brother."
Franzel has even been known to pick up a shift or two at Rachel's, and she says the Siev family has navigated the experience with grace. "The Siev family has handled the attention so well, I don't think they could have handled it any better," she says. "They're such a genuine, nice, loving, caring family. Once you watch the film, you'll know that 100%."
Importance of representation
Another audience member who reacted positively to the film is Steven Yeun, the Troy-raised Oscar nominee who was shown an early version of the film. Siev spoke to Yeun for about an hour afterward, which Siev says helped him put a lot of his own feelings about the film and his experience into perspective.
Daniel Dae Kim (TV's "Lost") is also an executive producer on the movie, and Siev says having these high-profile members of the Asian American and Pacific Islanders community on board with the project is important to him and others who share a similar background.
"These are two members from the AAPI community who have done beautiful work who I feel have paved the way for a film like 'Bad Axe' to be on the platform it is now," he says. "It feels so amazing when we get to show it to those communities and the response is, 'thank you, I feel seen, I feel represented, I see myself in your family.' And that's so important when it comes to representation, and I hope it helps other AAPI filmmakers to tell their personal stories."
Siev's sister, Jaclyn, says "Bad Axe" and everything it entailed ultimately brought her family closer together.
"It really has been a surreal experience," says Jaclyn, who splits her time between working at Rachel's and working her corporate job in Ann Arbor. "It's been crazy, but I am forever grateful that I've gotten to do this with the people I love most in life. I think that we're very, very blessed and very grateful."
Siev talks a lot in the movie about "Bad Axe" being a love letter to his hometown, and that's how he ultimately views it.
"It took a familial effort from everyone — my producers, my editors and my family — to get the film to the point where it was coming off as a love letter: yes to Bad Axe, but moreso to my family," he says.
"I hope at the end of the day the film provides a sense of hope. Whether that's in regards to family or our country or whatever it is, I hope it provides a sense of hope for the future."
No MPAA rating (language)
Running time: 1:41
How to watch: Now in theaters
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