In a poignant scene of “Bad Axe,” director David Siev steps in front of the camera to define why his latest documentary film is a love letter to his hometown.
Bad Ax is the small town in the Michigan Thumb where Siev’s immigrant parents settled in pursuit of the American dream. It’s the place where the duo raised four kids and opened Rachel’s, a restaurant that has served traditional American cuisine and specialty dishes that nod to the family’s Mexican and Asian American roots for nearly 25 years.
“Growing up in Bad Ax has just shaped so much of who our family is,” Siev says.
It’s the place Siev left to pursue better opportunities in film in Los Angeles and New York after graduating from the University of Michigan in 2015, and the place to which he returned in March 2020 while the film industry was on hiatus. It’s also the name of the documentary, which follows the Siev family through the COVID-19 pandemic, and screens at the Freep Film Festival April 28.
In a fitted sweatshirt embossed with a skeleton graphic and his dark hair peeking from beneath a slouchy gray beanie, Siev addresses his family’s concerns about whether a film that captures the social and political turbulence of the town could be perceived as a love letter by its loyal residents.
“It’s a love letter to Bad Axe because even though our family has our frustrations with Bad Axe, we still wouldn’t be where we are today if we didn’t have the community of Bad Axe,” Siev explains in the film. “It’s the people that have supported us that continue to support our business and allow us to achieve this American dream, and it’s the people who haven’t supported us that have forced us that much closer together as a family. And for that, I’m thankful.”
Filmed in 2020 during the height of the pandemic, the racial reckoning incited by the killing of George Floyd and deep partisan divides amid a presidential race, the film holds a magnifying glass to the nation’s most complex nuances through the lens of a multicultural family living in Bad Axe. The documentary unearths racism and neo-Nazi beliefs brimming in the conservative city.
The Siev family embodies many of the communities hardest hit by the pandemic. Helmed by a Cambodian father — Chun Siev escaped the Cambodian genocide in the 1970s — and a Mexican mother, both with pre-existing health conditions, the Sievs share their fears about contracting the virus, which presents a higher risk among minority communities and individuals with underlying medical concerns.
As the operators of Rachel’s, they endure the hardships of many small businesses, namely restaurant owners navigating COVID-19 restrictions and the uncertainty of new norms like high takeout demand and social distancing protocols. In conservative Bad Axe, mask mandates and catering order cancellations at Rachel’s were met with resistance.
The younger generation of Sievs, David, along with sisters Jaclyn and Raquel, represent the bold and outspoken community of allies who chose to stand in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. In conservative Bad Axe, the Sievs were met with death threats. And as former President Donald Trump coined the term “the China virus,” the Sievs were on the receiving end of Asian hate.
Still, Siev considers “Bad Axe” a love letter to his hometown. It’s a display of unconditional love of a place, even in its ugliest moments — perhaps a tough love that reflects Bad Axe’s flaws in an effort to help it heal and evolve.
And like all great loves, an overwhelming show of support from the Bad Ax community has reciprocated that unconditional love. Despite some opposition after the release of the trailer, Siev said the film would not have been possible without the support of the larger community.
“So many people rallied behind the crowdfunding campaign and our family,” Siev said in an interview with the Free Press, “that we were able to go above and beyond the initial fundraising goal and that is credit to the community of Bad Axe. It is unfortunate that we did receive the negative voices and the negative comments and the hate mail. It’s far and few but it speaks volumes, unfortunately.”
Beyond Bad Axe, there is little division on the matter: “Bad Axe” is a film to love. At the 2022 SXSW Film Festival, “Bad Axe” took home the Audience Award for Documentary Feature as well as the Special Jury Recognition for Exceptional Intimacy in Storytelling. IFC Films has also acquired the documentary, which gives the film a theatrical release, a streaming partner and the opportunity to reach audiences across the globe, which Siev said gives the film a life beyond festival season.
“It gets really meta. When I was on stage accepting the Special Jury Award at South by Southwest, there was this moment where I felt like I captured this story of the American dream and keeping it alive,” Siev said pensively, “and it was very emotional because I realized I am also part of that American dream being on the stage with this film. It was just crazy thinking about world outside of the film itself.”
On April 28, Siev’s 29th birthday, “Bad Axe” will join the Freep Film Festival for its Michigan premiere, a milestone that the director is anticipating with great Michigan pride.
“What a great birthday present to be able to bring ‘Bad Axe’ home to Michigan and to celebrate it with so many loved ones that will be there,” Siev said.
7 p.m. Thursday, Detroit Film Theater at the DIA. Detroit. Buy.
5 p.m. Saturday, Frame. Hazel Park. Buy.*
*”Bad Axe” is one of the Freep Film Festival’s special food-and-film events as a part of the 4 Nights. 4 Movies. 4 Chefs” series in partnership with Frame in Hazel Park. The screening will be paired with dinner from chefs of Rachel’s, featuring such menu items as coconut cream salmon and sweet bourbon pork belly.
More:Top metro Detroit chefs prepare movie-themed meals at Frame’s series; tickets on sale today
Contact Lyndsay C. Green at LCGreen@freepress.com