Defending a Community Where Some Reject You in Bad Axe
David Siev's love letter in a time of hate comes to SXSW
A description of Bad Axe, a new documentary premiering at South by Southwest, conjures up images of a Tennessee Williams drama, laced with a light apocalyptic motif. In 2020, just as a worldwide pandemic is shutting down the country, a mixed-race family must reunite together under one roof in their rural, conservative hometown of Bad Axe, Mich. Chun Siev, the patriarch of the family, is a Cambodian refugee who escaped genocide as a child. His wife, Rachel, is a Mexican American woman who used her waitressing experience to start her own restaurant with Chun. In 2020, the restaurant that once gave them such a strong connection to their community is under attack, not only from the virus, but from the racial tensions brewing among their conservative neighbors in Trump's America.
According to director and subject David Siev, though, beyond knowing that these were – pardon the phrase – unprecedented times, he had no idea when he picked up his camera that what he captured could be his first feature-length film. Once in the editing room, with all of his footage laid out before him, Siev realized he had captured a modern depiction of the American dream and "all of these things that pose a threat to it, and how our family has been able to come together and to show resilience and come out stronger than we ever were."
One of the main tensions in the film is between the Siev family and the town of Bad Axe. Despite this, David Siev still insisted, as he does in the film, that his documentary is his "love letter to Bad Axe." (In an exchange between David and his father in the film, Chun argues that he needs "to rewrite the love letter.") Siev clarified that "growing up in Bad Axe has really shaped our family into who we are today. We take the good and the bad."
The filmmaker's good will is almost certain to fly over the heads of those far to the right of him, unfortunately. "I'm still terrified of putting this film out there," Siev said. "There will always be a fear of this film living out there." Since the release of its trailer, the family has received hate speech and threats of violence from members of their community. On the other hand, they have also received tremendous support from their neighbors in the form of donations to fund the documentary and patronage at their restaurant, which is surviving and thriving through the tribulations of the pandemic. Importantly, the film does not dismiss Bad Axe, but instead embraces the community and implores it to do better through an oft-silenced, diverse perspective.
Bad Axe premieres on March 14, two days before the anniversary of the Atlanta spa shootings, in which a gunman targeted spas employed largely by Asian women, killing eight people in total. This event brought to light the growing sentiment of Asian-targeted racial violence in this country, an antidote to which is listening to the voices and experiences of Asian Americans. Bad Axe is a film that certainly gives insight into that perspective during these times, and offers a bit of resilience and hope.
Documentary Feature Competition
Monday, March 14, 12:30pm, Alamo South Lamar
Tuesday, March 15, 3, 3:30pm, Violet Crown
Friday, March 18, 3pm, Alamo South Lamar
Online: March 15-17