SXSW Film Review: Bad Axe

Audience award-winner follows a family surviving Covid and racism

Bad Axe

The Covid pandemic highlighted a cruel, dark reality from which America can't avoid: that it didn't take much to make cruelty and racism publicly acceptable.

In South by Southwest audience award winner Bad Axe, David Siev's tender but resilient portrait of his family and their restaurant in small town Michigan, the ugliness doesn't take long to emerge, even if it's initially anecdotal. Father of the family Chun Siev, who fled the Killing Fields of Cambodia, sounds a little stunned when he recounts having a truckload of kids pull up to his car and tell him to go back where he came from.

It's an enraging moment in this diary of what is, in many ways, the perfect American family: Chun married Rachel, a Mexican-American woman, they had kids, started a small business, and became part of a dictionary-definition heartland town. That animosity seems sadly mundane, but it's a disturbingly short distance from there to gun-toting skull-masked white supremacists, who likely have been customers in their dinner, throwing Nazi salutes, citing Trump, and threatening their youngest daughter, Raquel, when she attends a Black Lives Matter protest.

It's not like the family doesn't have enough to deal with, as they're desperately trying to keep their restaurant afloat as the economy tanks. Eldest daughter Jaclyn clashes with Chun about how to deal with the pandemic - and increasingly with what's coming through the door, that ugliness that has laid just dormant enough that they could pretend it wasn't going to intrude.

Yet David Siev's astonishing achievement is in how he gets the family to open up on camera, even after initial reticence. What's there even to film, they say as they pivot from welcoming people to the diner to takeout and delivery, from diner food to sushi, from whatever they were doing to whatever they need to do to get through this.

If Bad Axe reveals another truth, it's that filmmakers should not avoid making films and telling stories about the pandemic. It's two years and counting of all our lives, and ignore that is to ignore the context within which so much happened. That may seem strange, but Siev's timing in making Bad Axe places his story of a family struggling with assimilation and confrontation at a defining time. It's the crucible in which too much is revealed, as meanspirited hicks turn up at the reopened diner just to be mean; and as Raquel's boyfriend, Austin, has to work out what it means to be the Black adopted son of a white family; and as Chun's PTSD from his childhood evading the Khmer Rouge turns out to be sensible preparation against dangerous fanatics. In an innovative twist, David doesn't ignore the impact of making the film on his family and his community: the observer effect is in full force once he launches his Indiegogo campaign, and the harassment goes online and becomes more threatening.

Siev's decision to be both observer and observed is what both makes this a truly family story and stops it feeling like an overstuffed home movie. This is a family story - of a time, a place, an event, a community - in all its rich and quiet nuance, with all the members, related by blood or by affection, given their space. No one other than Siev could have told it this way because he has the inherent permission to to take the audience into his home in these most testing of times.

And if you're ever hungry in Bad Axe, go to Rachel's. There's a family there that will be glad to see you.

Read our interview with director David Siev, "Defending a Community Where Some Reject You in Bad Axe."

Bad Axe

Documentary Feature Competition, World Premiere

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