When the film industry ground to a halt in March 2020, director David Siev left New York for his hometown of Bad Axe, Michigan, to ride out the pandemic at his parents’ house. When he first picked up the camera to film his family, no one could have predicted the turn that events would take in the months to follow, nor how they would affect the Siev clan.
Over the past two years, the filmmaker shaped hours of footage into the documentary Bad Axe (reviewed in IE here, scroll down) which debuted at SXSW this year and won Special Jury Recognition for Exceptional Intimacy in Storytelling. The film chronicles the struggle to keep the family restaurant afloat in the wake of the pandemic and amidst the social and political unrest destabilizing the normally tranquil small town they call home.
Siev graduated from the film program at University of Michigan and got his start in the industry under Jeff Tremaine, the creator of Jackass, working his way up from assistant to producer with an enviable level of hands-on experience. He previously wrote and directed Year Zero (2018), a short film about his father’s experience escaping Cambodia’s killing fields as a child and immigrating to the United States.
The director, in addition to his parents, Chun and Rachel Siev, older sister Jaclyn, and his fiancé and the film’s producer Katarina Vasquez found time during SXSW to discuss small-town living as people of color, what it’s like to make a movie about your family and how to deal with negativity.
Misa Shikuma: How did you feel as people of color growing up in a place like Bad Axe, versus what it’s like now as an adult?
Jaclyn Siev: Bad Axe is 97.5% white and so growing up you always knew you were different. You tried to fit in, you tried to do everything you were supposed to do and tried to make sure you got along with everyone. I embrace my culture but, growing up, it was more at home and not necessarily outside. As an adult I’m so proud of my Asian culture and my Mexican culture, and it’s different because [I’m] much more aware of it and proud of it.
David Siev: I think a lot of that has to do with moving out of Bad Axe, because we both went to the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, which is kind of its own bubble. And I think being open and hearing those experiences from other people from everywhere around the world made us realize you should be proud of who you are but also you can still be proud of where you’re from.
MS: How did you end up choosing to move to Bad Axe in the first place?
Rachel Siev: My roots are actually from the Bad Axe area. I had my husband come visit back in the ‘80s and he really liked the town – it reminded him of our town Romeo.
Chun Siev: As a Cambodian refugee, a family without nation, when you first came to this country you kind of shy away from the bigger city. So we happened to be brought into Romeo, Michigan, in 1979. It was quite a lot of orchards, farming, so that stuck with [me]. I’ve been in this country 43 years now, but the first 23 were just Romeo.
RS: It’s a nice place to raise a family.
MS: As family of the filmmaker, how did you initially react and adapt when he started filming you?
DS: I always knew that I wanted to share the story of my family: my mom is Mexican-American and my dad is a Cambodian refugee. They really laid the foundation for this American dream we all built together. So that was always in the back of my mind as a story I wanted to tell, but when I actually started picking up the camera the first time, I don’t know how seriously people took me. I think they were like, ‘He’s just bored.’ And part of that is true: I was just bored. But I also would sit down and interview both my parents from time to time, hearing stories of them growing up in the ‘80s and ‘90s and raising a family.
JS: He’s our brother, and we’re a really close family so [we] don’t act any different on camera.
DS: What you see is what you get.
JS: Which is good and bad. It wasn’t until he started putting it together that I was like, ‘You can’t put that!’ Not even just the things that are like, ‘David, that’s really personal,’ but there are [scenes] where I just woke up, and I’m like, what the heck? Did you see the way I looked in that shot?
DS: I think when I talk about the parts I filmed out of boredom, for me it was like our whole family was together – like many families in America – all under one roof for the first time in a long time. So it was nice to capture, as you see in the first 20 – 30 minutes of the film, life as it was. These are home videos that we get to look back on and share one day. There’s 300 more hours of raw footage that we now get to pass down in our family.
JS: I will say there were times when our dad would be like, ‘David put that camera down!’ We don’t shy away from conflict. We just have that closeness where we can have these crazy arguments and blowouts, but we’re all still gonna sleep under the same roof and come sit at the same table, even if it’s just 20 minutes later.
MS: In the film you capture some really vulnerable moments, especially with your sister and father. How do you guys feel like this experience has made your relationships change or evolve?
CS: As an Asian American growing up…if your dad says there’s rain and it’s a bright sunny day, a lot of times you kind of have to agree with your dad instead of going through an argument. But I happen to have really outspoken children. When David started to pick up the camera and film us, there’s a moment, like, ‘Wait a minute, that can’t be on camera, put that fucking camera down right now!’ So this whole entire thing, having the adult children live with you and go through such a time that we haven’t been through before with this pandemic actually brought us closer than ever. And who would have thought that another war would have started? As a refugee without country 43 years ago, today when I sit back, I get chills when I think about what those people are going through. But there was hope for me, and there’s hope for many other people just like me.
DS: That’s an important message to take from the film – that feeling of hope. Because we did become so much closer as a family and I hope that many families did over the past two years. But this whole experience…you see the adversity, what’s going on in the world politically with the pandemic and the racial reckoning our country has gone through and you see how conflicted we are as a country but you also see that same conflict in our family. And at the end of the day we still come together and we still love each other and we’re still there for one another.
JS: We’re like a mini version of our country – we’re all very different. We all still come together as a family. What we all want, at the end of the day, is what’s best for our family. I heard [dad] say to one of his friends, ‘Teach your children well enough so that one day they can teach you.’ And I feel like he is so true to that. As strict and as tough as he is, he does listen to us. And not just listen – maybe at the time, he doesn’t because we’re butting heads – but when he has time to reflect and think about it he’s still growing as a father, as a man, and now a grandfather. He is willing to learn from his children.
MS: I think you curse more than any other Asian father I’ve ever encountered, and it’s very refreshing.
RS: He does not hold back.
DS: We’re hoping the meme of the movie becomes, ‘The fuck I am.’
CS: I’m not proud of certain things that I said…but when I look back on the life that the average 60-year-old man has had, they haven’t been through what I’ve been through. I lost eight members of my immediate family. I’ve witnessed so many executions and killings, right there in front of me and I had no say so whatsoever. And now here I am in the United States. I’m free to say it, I’m free to swear and do whatever I want to do. Sometimes it comes out in that sense…
MS: What was the editing process like? About how much footage did you end up with?
DS: I think it was about 250 – 300 hours. I’ve never made a documentary before. I feel my previous experience, and what I enjoy doing, is geared toward narrative filmmaking so I kind of took an approach to that type of filmmaking to making this. I didn’t know how to write a documentary treatment or anything so I wrote the script as if it were an actual narrative feature film, and it obviously became much more complex than that. So much of the editing process was learning things about myself. We all went into 2020 with our own experiences, and we all experienced similar things and we all came out of it differently. It was interesting having [the] perspective even as of two months ago when we were locking picture, because you look at things in the past when they happened and you look at things now [from] where you are…
Katarina Vasquez: That’s what I would say was the biggest thing: the edit process when we first started putting the movie together it was completely different than it is now. And I think the more time that [elapsed] between the first set of filming, the story has become more and more clear.
DS: The film has a lot of layers to it. The pandemic’s a backdrop, and everything going on in 2020 is a backdrop, but when you really peel it down more it is a story about family and generational trauma.
MS: In the film the community had a pretty harsh reaction to the fundraising trailer. Has there been any further reaction since the film is finished and starting to screen for audiences?
DS: There’s been so much positive reaction to the film, even when we released the fundraising trailer. We set up a $30K goal, we raised $40K. And that really is credit to the community of Bad Axe. But there is the small handful of people who do not want to give the film a chance, do not want to see another experience, or who don’t think these experiences exist, which was really hard for us to deal with. Because you have people who comment on your Facebook, ‘[The restaurant’s] food sucks, we’re never going there again.’ We got hate letters, we got phone calls of people saying racist things. I still get random emails, and two years ago I probably would’ve responded really angrily but I’ve learned to let that go and just hope they give the film a chance.
RS: I think that’s the biggest thing for me. I was petrified at first. What I realized for myself is that it’s okay to be different, it’s okay to think different. I’m really proud of David, [but] it’s hard when you have so much at stake. When the negativity came out – and we do this ourselves with Yelp and social media – where you have 390 positive, 5-stars and then you get that 1-star and you’re like, ‘What, are you kidding me?’ And it shouldn’t affect you like that.
DS: Somehow the negative voices seem to speak at a higher volume.
KV: Anyone who knows the family knows how special they are and are behind them 100%. Anyone who doesn’t know them – that’s where the negative comments come from.
MS: Do you think you’ll ever move back to Bad Axe?
DS: To live full time with these crazy people? No. Let me put it this way: I’ve lived away from home since 2015 but I’ve still managed to take a flight home even when I was making $10 an hour as a production assistant to go back to Bad Axe once a month. I don’t think we’d ever live there permanently, but we have 40 acres of land and we’ve talked about building a cottage there, like a Siev village.
KV: I think the important thing is that we will always be pulled back to Bad Axe – that it will always be a version of home.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.