On the day I viewed “Bad Axe” at home as part of SXSW, I was attempting to identify the person who attacked me a week earlier and then read about a woman who had been attacked from behind and hit 125 times in New York. That is what it is to be Asian American in these times and yet I live in an area that has a sizable ethnic Asian population. Not so with the titular town.
Bad Axe is the name of a small city in the Thumb region of the Lower Peninsula and has a population of just over 3,000. It’s the kind of place that feels safe and everyone knows everyone. An Academy Award-winning film editor Bob Murawski (“The Hurt Locker,” 2009) was the high school valedictorian at the high school. That must give some people aspirations.
David Siev was in New York when the pandemic hit. By this time, he had graduated from the University of Michigan and even spent some time in Los Angeles. During the pandemic, he returned to Bad Axe, to his family. The population of Bad Axe is 91.6 percent White and 6.1 percent Hispanic/Latino. This is a small town that doesn’t really know what racism is because the voices are small.
David’s father Chun was a Cambodian refugee who escaped with his mother and five siblings. Chun married Rachel, who is Mexican American. They had four kids–three sisters and David. What started out as a donut shop, expanded into a restaurant, Rachel’s. Chun was more than the owner of a donut shop, even before the opening of Rachel’s. He was the head of a martial arts school: Chun Siev Tae Kwon Do. That’s sort of the Bruce Lee way into masculine respect.
The restaurant was now mostly run by sisters Jaclyn and Raquel. But with COVID-19, the restaurant was forced to close. From there, the family struggled trying to keep the employees and the business in the black but there were those who objected to wearing face masks in public areas.
No matter what side you are on the mask or political spectrum, you’ve heard the stories about restaurants and other eateries fighting for survival. David Siev provides a very personal story of one restaurant, one family and one town, a microcosm representing the macrocosm, but from the outlook of often overlooked minorities. This family isn’t Black; they are Latino and Asian. Latinos represent about 19 percent of the US population, compared to 13 percent of Black and African American. Asian Americans are only 5 percent. In Bad Axe, the Latino and Asian population is less than the national average. That means the voices raised nationally seem amplified to this small town.
David Siev hadn’t originally meant to make a documentary and freely admits this. That’s obvious in the structuring of the beginning footage and the second half, where the focus becomes clearer. While billed as a love letter to his small hometown, not everyone was feeling the love. But a small town, like a family, isn’t without disagreements and adversity. The family took other risks: participating in Black Lives Matter protests. To his credit. David Siev shows it all.
The discomfort I feel with the growing hostility toward Asian Americans in an area with about 30 percent Asian Americans who are predominately East Asian makes me wonder about the pressure of being in a city or town where the population is close to the national average of 5 percent or lower. These times are not easy and it’s worth seeing and hearing. It’s a story of persistence in the face of rejection and the persistent rejection that Asian Americans have been facing since the first Asian American set foot in the Americas in the late 1500s, some even coming or escaping as slaves.
“Bad Axe” is Siev’s first feature-length documentary. The film made its world premiere at SXSW and won a Special Jury Recognition for Exceptional Intimacy in Storytelling and the SXSW Audience Award for documentary feature. This documentary also screened at the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival (7 May 2022) and at the San Francisco CAAMFest (15 May 2022) While not perfect, this documentary is certainly worth seeing because surely everyone knows of a certain favorite restaurant that didn’t survive the economic strain of the pandemic or even knows someone who was involved with an eatery that struggle during the pandemic. Here’s an inside look at what was happening in every city in the nation and from a perspective of people also struggling with the additional the burden of the forever foreigner faces. For information on future screenings, visit the official website: BadAxeFilm.com.