The documentary opens Friday after creating buzz on the film festival circuit.
When the world shut down in 2020, New York filmmaker David Siev returned to Bad Axe, the small Michigan thumb town where he was born and raised, and began filming his family.
At first, he didn’t know exactly what he was documenting. But as the months passed, a plot began to emerge: about a tight-knit family despite unprecedented turmoil, 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 film is “Bad Axe,” and after a wave of critical acclaim and success on the film festival circuit, it hits screens in Metro Detroit and across the country on Friday.
“Initially, I had no intention of doing a documentary,” Siev said, during a Zoom call last week from his apartment in Astoria, Queens, after an extensive coast-to-coast tour. another with his film. “In those early days, I just sat down with my parents and wanted to have this oral history of how their restaurant came to be. I thought I was just shooting this sequence as a means of research to write a screenplay.
As the weeks turned into months, however, the story grew.
The Siev family’s Bad Ax restaurant, Rachel’s Bar and Grill, closed in-person dining due to pandemic orders and could only serve take-out customers. As summer approaches, racial tensions following the murder of George Floyd have escalated both nationally and locally and the Sievs, a Cambodian-Mexican-American family, have been targeted in their community for their support for the Black Lives Matter movement.
The filming of the film becomes a point of contention in the film, as townspeople grow suspicious of their on-screen portrayal as the film releases. And the Sievs – mom Rachel, dad Chun and their four children – are trying to balance work, life, the political climate in a stormy election year, the pandemic and their mental health in an environment that is increasingly difficult, stressful and hostile.
For Siev, it is deeply personal work, but it is also work that transcends the boundaries of race, class and geography.
“I hope this film will really open people’s eyes to what the American experience is like,” he says. “I say that in the sense that our family is as American as any family living in Bad Axe, and our experience is part of what it means to be American.”
passion in cinema
Siev grew up going to the movies at the two-screen movie theater on Huron Avenue in downtown Bad Axe, across from the police department and one block from Pete’s Bar, a local watering hole. He remembers seeing the “Lord of the Rings” movies and the “Star Wars” prequels on the big screen.
But he didn’t take filmmaking seriously as a career path until he took a film class at the University of Michigan and saw films like ‘Citizen Kane’ and ‘The Searchers’. .
“That’s when I first realized how passionate filmmaking has to be,” says 29-year-old Siev. “I’ve always really loved movies, but being in film school you start to appreciate art, and that’s when you can venture out on your own and find movies that resonate within you and that you love.”
He took film as a major and after graduating he 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 landed a job under “Jackass” impresario Jeff Tremaine at his production company, Gorilla Flicks, where he worked on MTV’s internet music video show “Ridiculousness” and Tremaine’s 2019 biopic. Motley Crue “The Dirt”.
Siev credits Tremaine for teaching him the ropes of filmmaking.
“Even though what I do may seem so different from what Jeff does, he really taught me a lot about what it means to be a director, in terms of being a great leader and being collaborative,” he said. Tremaine carries an executive producer credit on “Bad Axe.”
While working with Tremaine, Siev directed his 2018 short “Year Zero.” He is inspired by his father Chun, who survived the massacres in his home country of Cambodia in the 1970s. Siev cast his father in the film, and the experience helped him better understand sacrifice what his father did 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 Mexican-American raised in Detroit. After living in Romeo, the couple moved to Bad Axe, a population of 3,000 and a few changes, to a two-bedroom house. They had four children and David spent the first 10 years of his life sleeping on a bedroom floor.
Chun and Rachel ran a donut and candy shop, which they eventually turned into Rachel’s, a family restaurant with a varied menu of American, Mexican, and Asian dishes and a full bar. Rice bowls are recommended, as are specialty drinks.
Everything was fine. Then the pandemic arrived and everything changed.
Michigan on screen
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March 2020, Siev returned home, unsure of what to expect in New York. And that’s when he started filming, which his family was used to.
As things started to take shape, Siev created a trailer for his film and launched a $30,000 online fundraiser.
It was then that news of his movie broke and the Sievs became targets. People seen in the film – including armed protesters at a Black Lives Matter rally – expressed concern about their portrayal and that of their city in the film.
Threats on social media 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 continue filming, which leads to one of the film’s most poignant moments, when Siev’s mother explains to her son that he doesn’t have to live in the city and face to the film’s fallout, but they do.
“For me personally, it was never a question of whether to go ahead and keep making this movie; I was going to do it anyway. But the question that came up was, ‘will I get out that movie over there,'” says Siev, who shot more than 350 hours of footage for the film. “I was never going to release the movie for the world to see unless my family was on board and trusted what I was doing.”
That approval came and the temperature around the film, especially in Bad Axe, cooled once it started showing earlier this year. It’s an affectionate, if confrontational, portrait of the city, warts and all, which is only enhanced by its unwavering 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 community members in May at the Bad Ax Theatre, the same theater where he grown up seeing movies and where the movie will be screened from Friday.
Nicole Franzel, a neighbor family friend of Ubly who helped the film’s online fundraising campaign, was one of the backers the film was shown to in May.
“The movie is so raw. It’s so real. It’s incredibly moving. I laugh with them, I cry with them, I support them,” said Franzel, former winner of the CBS reality show ‘Big Brother’. .”
Franzel has even been known to take a shift or two from Rachel’s house, and she says the Siev family came through the experience gracefully. “The Siev family handled the attention so well, I don’t think they could have handled it any better,” she says. “They’re such a genuine, kind, loving and caring family. Once you watch the movie, you’ll know 100 percent.”
Importance of representation
Another audience member who reacted positively to the film is Steven Yeun, the Oscar nominee raised in Troy who saw an early version of the film. Siev then talked to Yeun for about an hour, 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 executive producing the film, and Siev says having these high profile members of the Asian American and Pacific Islander community aboard the project is important to him and others who share a similar background.
“They’re two members of the AAPI community who did a great job and who I think paved the way for a movie like ‘Bad Axe’ to be on the platform it is now,” says- he. “It’s so amazing when you get to show it to these 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 tell their personal stories.”
Siev’s sister, Jaclyn, says “Bad Axe” and all it entailed ultimately brought her family together.
“It was truly a surreal experience,” says Jaclyn, who splits her time between working at Rachel and her corporate job in Ann Arbor. “It’s been crazy, but I’m forever grateful that I got to do this with the people I love most in life. I think 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 sees it.
“It took a family effort from everyone – my producers, my editors and my family – for the film to become a love letter: yes to Bad Axe, but more so to my family,” says- he.
“I hope that in the end the movie gives a sense of hope. Whether it’s about family or our country or whatever it is, I hope it gives a sense of hope for the future.”
Not rated: language
Duration: 101 minutes
In theaters Friday