Bad Axe sits at the tip of Michigan’s thumb.
Until now, its claims to fame have been its distinctive name— after a rusty axe found by early settlers; its status as the seat of Huron County, and as the birthplace of William Potts, who grew up to become a Detroit police officer and in 1920 invented the yellow warning light to add to red and green, creating the modern traffic light.
That may be about to change.
The small town stars in the title role of David Siev’s documentary, “Bad Axe,” which premieres next week at the prestigious South by Southwest (SXSW) Film Festival in Austin, Texas.
Bad Axe, with a population of about 3,000, may seem an unlikely candidate for a motion picture of any sort. But Bad Axe is Siev’s hometown, and the filmmaker has chosen it as the setting for his story of the American Dream.
One of only eight documentaries selected for the acclaimed festival, the film is “a real-time portrait of 2020,” from the point of view of Siev’s family, owners of a local restaurant, according to a film festival program.
The family's response to prominent issues of that year— Covid 19 and nationwide protests following the death of George Floyd, a black man, at the hands of Minneapolis police — are central to the film.
“When the BLM movement takes center stage in America, the family uses their voice to speak out in their town where Trumpism runs deep,” the festival synopsis says. “What unfolds is a real-time portrait of 2020 through the lens of this multicultural family’s fight to keep their American dream alive in the face of a pandemic, Neo-Nazis, and the trauma of having survived a genocide.”
Rural America in 2020 may be the context, but in the end the film is about family, the 28-year-old Siev says.
The son of a Cambodian father and a Mexican mother, Siev and his three sisters made up part of Bad Axe’s tiny Asian population -- less than 2 percent.
“I would not have changed growing up in rural Michigan in any way, I loved growing up in Bad Axe, and I’m thankful I had the experience of growing up in a town like Bad Axe,” Siev says in a telephone interview from his home in New York City. But “being a person of color— I always realized, growing up, I was different and our family was different.
Filmmaker David Siev
“That experience,” he says, “really, really shaped me as the person I am today.”
The year – 2020 – was the perfect time to tell the story of his father Chun’s escape as a child from Cambodia, his marriage to Rachel, their work to establish a restaurant and their efforts to raise their four children in a white rural community unaccustomed to refugees or Asians or Mexicans.
The film, he says, is about his family’s experience owning and operating its family restaurant, Rachel’s of Bad Axe, which started as a donut shop and is now a “classy casual” restaurant named after his mother.
At Rachel’s, the menu ranges from bacon cheeseburgers and ribeye steak to sushi and signature rice bowls, served up by the team of Chun and Rachel Siev, married in 1987 and working side by side ever since.
Their story is no secret — they share it on the restaurant’s menu and social media posts – and Chun’s martial arts classes are legendary in the community.
The film project was no secret, either.
In 2020, David Siev left his apartment in New York to return to Bad Axe and his family to wait out the Covid-19 pandemic, filming throughout town. He says he kept a fairly low profile but passersby likely saw him and his camera out and about during the months of filming.
“I know when we released the film’s ‘sizzle reel’ online, that’s when we began to get a lot of traction, a lot of attention in the community,” says Siev, who graduated from high school in Bad Axe in 2011 and earned his undergraduate degree in film from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, 112 miles away. “A lot of it is positive, some negative.”
The community has largely embraced and supported him and his work as they have his family and its restaurant, Siev says.
For instance, a crowdfunding campaign initially hoped to raise $30,000, but ended up collecting nearly $10,000 more. “The people in Bad Axe were just so enthusiastic about our family telling our story,” Siev says.
The negativity, “shown first hand in the film,” he says, “included comments, emails, phone calls— all of that.”
In his youth Siev also experienced negative interactions, racial interactions, and “those stick with you, they stick with you for a long time,” Siev says. “As an adult … you realize that’s not normal and it shouldn’t be normal.”
“Bad Axe— the film— presents my family as a fellow American family first and a refugee family last,” Siev says. “We feel the same emotions of fear, anxiety, sadness, happiness, and love for our families that any family does. I want viewers to feel as personally connected to my family as if they’ve always known them.”
Why is that so important?
‘It’s okay to speak out, to have a voice,” Siev says. “It’s important for people to understand other people’s experiences.”
“While CNN and Fox News inform the present with the statistics, the politics, and the opinions of the day,” Siev says, “it will be the stories like my family’s that will ultimately shape the future.”
Shaping the future
What will the future hold for cities like Bad Axe? After the hardships of 2020, they may be on the cusp of rebirth.
For two decades, the population of Bad Axe declined, but the latest census figures show the town has begun to grow again.
The Chamber of Commerce, which had crumbled by 2020, is back in business again.
Throughout changing times, the Siev family has remained steadfast and active residents, contributing to the town’s energy, says Kaitlyn Fay, president of the Bad Axe Chamber of Commerce who is also a relative newcomer to town.
“They’re wonderful people,” Fay says of the Siev family.
When Fay moved to Bad Axe from Lansing to begin work as a financial advisor nearly two years ago, she wondered how she would adjust to life in a small rural town.
No regrets, she says, and “Rachel and Chun are kind of the embodiment of the warmth and kindness that I’ve experienced here.”
Fay is a member of the exercise class Chun teaches, which has morphed over the years from a martial arts class for youngsters into a twice-weekly general fitness class.
It was at exercise class just a few weeks ago that Fay learned of David Siev’s film about his hometown and its upcoming world premiere in Texas. Siev finished editing the film last week.
Like Fay, he is waiting to see the film in public.
“I’m thrilled,” he says. “I never would have guessed when I started shooting almost exactly two years ago” that Bad Axe would be premiering at a major festival, especially one like SXSW.
“I’m so honored and humbled that people see the importance of the story,” he says. “I’m thrilled, excited, anxious, scared — so many different feelings. But it almost feels like a dream come true to have made a film about my family with my family.”
Rosemary Parker has worked as a writer and editor for more than 40 years, most of that time in Southwest Michigan.