By C.J. Hirschfield
March 30, 2022
There is a serious discussion that takes place in the superb new documentary Bad Axe about whether the film is or is not a love letter to the eponymous town—or will its coverage of some of the town’s less savory Trumpian residents cause people to hate it? Not to worry, Bad Axe. Any town that can boast having raised a family like the one featured in the film has got to have a whole lot going for it.
For one thing, the rural Michigan town welcomed Chun Siev’s family many years ago—his mother and six siblings– in their escape from the Cambodian killing fields. Now Chun’s own family of four by his Mexican-American wife have managed through hard work and tenacity to realize the American dream, in the form of their family-run restaurant.
The documentary, directed by Chun’s son David Siev, provides a portrait of an Asian-American family in Trump’s rural America as they fight to keep their business alive in the face of a pandemic, Neo-Nazis, and painful scars from Cambodian atrocities of the past.
There is a documentary sub-genre in which a family member (usually the child of the subject/s) directs and documents their own– Circus of Books, Dick Johnson is Dead, and One Child Nation are a few recent examples. The result can be intimate and illuminating stories that have never been shared, only able to be told thanks to a special kind of trust. And interestingly, there are often unanticipated revelations. Not surprisingly, Bad Axe received a Special Jury Recognition for Exceptional Intimacy in Storytelling at the recent 2022 SXSW Film Festival.
In Bad Axe, center stage is taken by the family’s bigger-than life patriarch, Chun Siev, who admits to retaining some level of PTSD years after his experience in Cambodia. He often butts heads with his smart and strong-willed daughter Jaclyn–about everything from how to keep the restaurant afloat during the pandemic, to the wisdom of participating in the town’s Black Lives Matter demonstration. These battles are profane and epic, but clearly grounded in love.
By the time we witness family members experience racist remarks and animosity at a BLM march attended by the Siev daughters and their friends, we already have a very good sense of context: The town (“two stop lights, one Walmart, everybody knows everybody”), the people (many, but not all are Trumpers) and the family (fiercely loyal and loving).
Bad Axe takes us month to month through the pandemic, culminating in the 2020 election. Neo-Nazis make threats on the restaurant’s phone line, belligerent guests refuse to wear masks inside the restaurant, and daughter Racquel is followed home at night by a mysterious vehicle.
But Dad has taught his kids martial arts, as well as how to fire a rifle.
In this engaging and heartfelt new film, we see how Bad Axe met badass, whose names are Chun and Jaclyn. There may be occasional sparks—within the family and in the town, but at the end of the day, there’s no place like home.
Bad Axe – United States; English; 100 minutes
C.J. Hirschfield retired after 17 years as Executive Director of Children’s Fairyland, where she was charged with the overall operation of the nation’s first storybook theme park. Prior to that, she served as an executive in the cable television industry where she produced two series, ran San Francisco’s public access channel and advocated on behalf of the industry. A former writer for Film Month, she also penned a weekly column for the Piedmont Post for 13 years and now writes features and reviews for EatDrinkFilms. C.J. holds a degree in Film and Broadcasting from Stanford University.
Hirschfield currently serves on the programming team for the Appreciating Diversity Film series showing free documentaries in Oakland and Piedmont, as well as on the advisory board of Youth Beat, a youth media training program that provides low-income Oakland students with the tools and opportunities they need to thrive in today’s workforce.
C.J. says, “A good documentary takes us places we never could never have imagined, and changes the way we see the world.”
David Siev –Director/Producer/Cinematographer. After graduating from the University of Michigan, David left his small Midwest town of Bad Axe, MI for Los Angeles. He landed a home at Jeff Tremaine’s production company, Gorilla Flicks, where he spent several years finessing the art of guerrilla filmmaking. As a jack of all trades filmmaker, David holds producing, camera, and consulting credits on everything from hidden-camera blockbuster comedies like BAD TRIP (Netflix) to rock and roll biopics such as THE DIRT (Netflix). David first made waves in the Asian-American festival circuit with the debut of his award-winning short film, YEAR ZERO. The film would go on to win Best Narrative Short awards from the DC Asian Pacific American Film Festival, Vancouver Asian Film Festival, Manhattan International Film Festival, and several others. David currently lives in New York where he is now focused on writing and directing his own projects.
When COVID-19 made its first wave throughout the United States in March of 2020, I decided to leave New York City for my rural hometown of Bad Axe, MI, to be with my family. With many restaurants facing dire financial struggles across the country, my parents’ family-owned restaurant was no exception.
The story of Bad Axe begins long before the start of the pandemic and my return to Bad Axe. My mother, Rachel, is a Mexican-American
woman who spent her early years working day in and day out as a waitress at various restaurants in Metro-Detroit. On the other hand, my father, Chun, is a Cambodian refugee who escaped the genocide of the Killing Fields in 1979 with his mother and five siblings. The two met in 1986 while Rachel was working at a Chinese restaurant Chun stumbled into, and the rest is history. As a young, married couple with no college education, no money, but all ambition, they started a family and opened up a donut shop and tae kwon do school to get by.
In 1998, my parents decided to move our family from the outskirts of Detroit to build a new donut shop in a small, quaint town that would become our home for years to come: Bad Axe, Michigan. My parents struggled for years to make ends meet with their new donut shop, Baker’s Dozen. They shortly after decided to transition the donut shop into a family restaurant named Rachel’s, but to their dismay, things didn’t get much better. My siblings and I learned the value of hard work and the stresses of wondering if we would lose our house at a very young age. I remember a deep fear that the bank would one day come and take all of our personal belongings out of our home if my parents couldn’t pay the bills. And as much concern that I felt as a kid, my oldest sister, Jaclyn, bore most of the weight to do something about it.
Jaclyn never got to have a normal childhood that most kids have growing up. At the age of 11, She began working at the restaurant full-time and has not stopped since. It wasn’t until after she graduated from the University of Michigan and got a corporate job that things began to take a turn for our family. Jaclyn invested her salary from her new white-collar job back into the restaurant. We remodeled, recharged, and reinvented what our small, family restaurant could be in the town of Bad Axe.
Bad Axe is what I’d describe as your typical, small Midwestern town. There are two main stoplights, miles of cornfields, not a whole lot of diversity, and then us. I was one of four people of color in my school. As an adolescent, I’ve been called every racial slur in the book and had difficulty coming to terms with my own racial identity. I’ve always felt like an outsider to my community in many ways. It wasn’t until I left Michigan and moved out to Los Angeles that I began to ask questions and learned to embrace my identity as a Cambodian-Mexican American. I started learning more about my dad’s trauma of surviving genocide and even wrote and directed my first film, Year Zero, about his fight for survival in Cambodia. This experience made me realize how far my parents had come to build their own American Dream.
Flash forward to March 2020. The pandemic hit New York City. My girlfriend and I packed up our bags and left our two-bedroom apartment in Queens to make our way back home to Bad Axe. My siblings, who had all lived in the bustling city of Ann Arbor, MI, did the same. We
decided it was best to all be together during this uncertain time. Having just lost my job, I made the best use of my time and began filming life as it was. With everyone living under the same roof again, my only intention at the time was to film a time capsule that our family could look back on. So I filmed every day that year, capturing the mixed emotions we felt as we lived through a year of fear, anger, joy, and hope.
My father’s PTSD resurfaced due to the anxieties in dealing with the uncertainties of a global pandemic. For him, it brought back the hauntings of the collapsing Cambodia in 1975. Being home again, Jaclyn and I had to reckon with the suppressed resentment we had for our hometown since the 2016 election. We were quickly made aware that speaking up in support of the Black Lives Matter movement meant putting our family’s business at stake. As children, we were raised to stand up for what we believe in, but suddenly living in Bad Axe, we were reminded that no matter how much we thought we fit in, many of those around us were eager to turn their backs on us if we made it known that our viewpoints differed from them.
In November of 2020, the world seemed to start getting back to whatever “normal” was, with COVID restrictions lifted and the passing of a divided election. With that, I headed back to NYC to begin putting the pieces together of everything I had filmed. Shortly after, I released a trailer for the film to start a crowdfunding campaign to help kick off the feature-length documentary I had in mind. While I did expect some backlash, my family and I were unprepared for the depth that people would go to attack our family on a personal level. Don’t get me wrong, a large majority of our community was incredibly supportive and encouraged us to share our story. However, the wounds from the negative bunch dug deep and seemed to bring to life every fear we ever had about speaking up. Comments such as “go back to Cambodia” or “we’re no longer supporting your restaurant” were hurled at us on social media, on top of threatening phone calls and hate mail from white nationalists. There was a point when my parents sat me down and tried to convince me that sharing our story was no longer worth it if it meant jeopardizing our family’s business and, more importantly, our safety. However, as time went on, I convinced my family that the fear that we had was the very reason that our voices needed to be heard. By sharing our experiences, we could show that our family’s story transcends politics, that at its core, this film is a story of what it means to be American today.
In the edit and through hours of splicing together footage, I realized I had captured a portrait of American history. Through a character-driven, cinema verite approach, I wanted to connect themes of transgenerational trauma, racial identity, and what the modern-day American Dream truly is. The fear of losing that dream my parents had worked so hard to build affected us as our family (and country) plunged into crisis; however, it also brought us all closer together as a family, community, and Americans. As a first-time documentary filmmaker, I leaned heavily into my narrative storytelling style and drew inspiration from both recent narrative and verite documentary films such as Minari and Minding the Gap. Finally, after cutting down 300 hours of footage, I found myself with a film that I hope will be passed down for generations to come.
The story of Bad Axe needs to be told because I believe it encompasses all that it means to be American. While we may be different from many of those living in our hometown through the color of our skin, the history of our family, and the views we may have, we are more alike than we are different. I love the town of Bad Axe because it’s given our family everything. Despite all the adversity we may have faced, it has ultimately shaped me into the person I am today.