SXSW 2022: Bad Axe

Directed by: David Siev
Distributed by: TBA

Written by: Patrick Hao


In the Indiegogo campaign for “Bad Axe,” director David Siev describes his film as a love letter to his eponymous hometown of Bad Axe, Michigan. That is not quite an accurate description of this documentary. Rather, it is a love letter to his family during the most intense periods of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Siev’s family is the prototypical ideal of the American dream. His father, Chun, was a refugee who came to the United States as a young boy, escaping the Khmer Rouge regime in the 1970s. His mother, Rachel Siev, is a first-generation Mexican American, who met Chun working at various restaurants. Together, they opened a donut shop called Rachel’s, which eventually grew to a Mexican-Asian fusion restaurant whose success has afforded the family an upper-middle-class lifestyle to support three children, David, Jaclyn, and Raquel. This is the same type of family and entrepreneurship that is oft featured as a heartwarming story on the nightly news.

The film is David Siev’s attempt to capture his family during a time of crisis. Not only is the COVID-19 pandemic threatening the financial viability of the restaurant, but a growing resentment of the “other” threatens the family within the conservative town that the Siev’s find themselves in. “Bad Axe” is at its best when it seems like a real-time depiction of the sentiments of the last two years. The roller coaster ride of the cautious uncertainty of the early days of COVID-19 to the growing social awareness spurred by the George Floyd protests to the fears of the growing resentment of the Asian community. All of that is shown with great urgency through the hyperfocus of attention to one family.

“Bad Axe,” unfortunately, also suffers through many documentary clichés that undercut any of the potency of cinéma vérité depiction to something that is manipulating for emotional catharsis. Uses of music and slow-motion action shots come off as cloying. Even Siev’s narrative focus is too linear in his approach to the story. It seems very “documentary filmmaking 101” which is great in creating narrative cohesion, but interesting threads feel shallowly explored – such as Chun’s assimilation into the community – and the narrative closures feel too tidy at the end in the way that life is not.

The most interesting moments come when the family begins questioning the film’s potential of causing harm to them. David no longer lives in Bad Axe, as he is a filmmaker working with Jeff Tremaine, of “Jackass” fame, in New York City. But, his film’s promotion has exacerbated the tension within the community, as the locals, including a group of white supremacists, feel that the film and the family are denigrating them and the town. The family is rightfully worried, as Rachel says to her son, “You really don’t live here – so it doesn’t cause you a damn thing.” This fourth wall break has been the question of documentary filmmaking for eons. What is the responsibility of the filmmaker to its subjects – and when does it become exploitation, especially when it is family? Of course, this is quickly dropped.

“Bad Axe” is by no means a bad film. The Siev family are worthy subjects for a film and encompass the attitudes of the last two years. Anyone watching the film will be able to connect with their story. But maybe it required someone with more distance from its subject in order to truly explore the nuances of the subject matter.

“Bad Axe” was screened as part of the 2022 edition of the SXSW Film Festival.

You can follow Patrick and his passion for film on Letterboxd and Twitter.

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