After returning to his hometown, Bad Axe, Michigan, at the height of the 2020 pandemic, New York-based filmmaker David Siev passed the time by recording home videos of his family. At one point his father, Chun, asks, “Why are you filming everything?” And over the course of the documentary Bad Axe, Siev shows his father, and the audience, why.
Siev always felt that his family had a story to share with the world. Chun arrived in America as a refugee from war-torn Cambodia with his late mother, laying the foundations for an immigrant story that blossomed into a restaurant business and a family, which also includes Siev’s sisters, Jaclyn and Raquel, and their mother Rachel who is Mexican-American.
By following the Siev family through the troubled lockdowns, Bad Axe utilizes the power of observation in watching them work tirelessly for their community. We relish in their comfort with one another, and the pride they take in their restaurant. We also see the ways in which COVID impacted their daily lives, never shying away from the rough patches. Chun and Jaclyn, in particular, get into many rows with harsh words exchanged and frustrations boiling to the surface, as we see the Siev family become a target for racist attacks online and in-person. For instance, social media comments under a Bad Axe fundraiser telling them to return to Cambodia, and Raquel and Jaclyn getting slurs hurled at them by armed white supremacists at a BLM protest.
The conflict between staying quiet and speaking up is central to Bad Axe, with no easy answers. Siev’s documentary becomes a source of contention as we realize in some ways, he is like us, an outsider — as Rachel points out, “You don’t live here [Michigan], you have no clue…it doesn’t cost you a damn thing.”
While Bad Axe documents the cost of their hardship, it also embraces their resilience. When Chun ruminates on his mental scars from the Cambodian Civil War, he reflects on how he can share his message with the next generation to heal their grief. And as the family bravely share their experiences, both the good and the bad, their voices form the potent themes of this documentary: the tensions arising from generational trauma, and the familial bonds of love that tie them together and alleviate their pain.
The Toronto Reel Asian Film Festival is in-person and online from November 9 to 20.