AUSTIN, Texas — How do we reflect on the trials of the last few years, especially when we’re still recovering from them? Some filmmakers have taken an analytical approach, contextualizing a pandemic and politically divisive era with timelines, numbers and floating-head testimonials.
David Siev, the director behind “Bad Axe,” one of the most memorable films that premiered at South By Southwest this month, is not such a filmmaker. For one thing, his documentary didn’t start out as a documentary, but rather a collection of home videos shot to pass the time after returning to his Michigan hometown that gives the movie its name in early 2020 (he left the community of a few thousand for LA, a community of a few million, to pursue filmmaking).
It was about two months in, as the Sievs contended with the pandemic’s impact on their restaurant and on themselves, that David recognized it as an opportunity to tell his family’s story—one about resilience and togetherness, but also one about self-interrogation and the strength it takes to speak up when the easier thing to do is to stay quiet. The result is a work of astounding directorial vulnerability well-deserving of the Exceptional Intimacy in Storytelling jury award it collected at South By Southwest.
Siev’s family is a group of people you grow attached to as strongly as any recent documentary subject. That’s largely a result of his parents, his sisters, their boyfriends never feeling like mere subjects to learn about and eventually forget. Representing a spectrum of ages, experiences and ethnicities, they’re a snapshot of American diversity. And while they face the hardships of operating a local restaurant during the pandemic’s volatile early months and confronting racism in small-town USA, it’s the intra-household reckonings which makes Siev’s feature-length debut both achingly intimate and profoundly symbolic. The story of his family as we observe it in “Bad Axe” is the story of living as an American in 2020 and beyond.
We spoke to David Siev via Zoom after he returned home to New York about the making of “Bad Axe,” and the decision to share his family’s story with the world.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
David Lynch: We hear you say specifically in "Bad Axe" that you're aiming to create a love letter to the town you grew up in. And that idea, we also see, is interrogated by your family. Is love letter how you would still describe your film today?
David Siev: I would, actually. When I say this is my love letter to Bad Axe, I think what I'm actually trying to say is this is a love letter to you guys, to my family, and the fact that this community is what brought us all closer together. The good and the bad. So yeah, I would very much still describe it as a love letter.
The interesting question that brings up is, "OK, is it a love letter to Bad Axe or is it a love letter to your family?" And I think that can be interpreted in two ways: Yes, it is a love letter to Bad Axe, but ultimately it is a love letter to the family, and specifically my family. Because filmmaking is something that's important to me, and this is my way of showing it to them; by sharing our story and capturing that legacy. I think a really great thing about this film, for me, is the fact that I get to share this with my kids one day, with (my sister) Jaclyn's kids, and it gets passed down from generation to generation. So much of the film, thematically, has to do with turning the leaf for the next generation. So yeah, I still would describe it as a love letter. As far as who it is to, I think that's open for interpretation. But for me, it's both to Bad Axe and my family.
Did you have a camera in your hands at an early age around the house? Or was that a relatively new sight for your family to get used to in the early weeks when you were back home?
It's funny, when we were going through old home videos when I was probably 6 or 7, it was just one of those old camcorders. I was someone who was always going around and just filming the dumbest things. And I think Jaclyn as well, but more for a different reason; she just always loved capturing memories. I think it's safe to say that I always instinctively wanted to pick up a camera. Then when filmmaking became this identity, this (new) part of me that was very, very normal. I think that's what makes a lot of the moments so raw is that it wasn't like this new thing, like, "Oh, David has a camera on us." (In regards to) access, there's no barrier there, because I think, one, it is me, it is the son, a brother that's holding a camera around. But also, I always hold the camera around.
You also make it clear in the film that early on you're gathering footage for posterity's sake, not knowing exactly what would become of it. Tell me about when you committed to turning it into your first feature-length documentary, and how did your family respond to that decision?
The intention behind filming kind of started off as two things. One was capturing life as it was; it was the first time we were all home, under one roof as young adults. I knew these would be fantastic home videos to look back on one day. Then there's also the other aspect, the filmmaker aspect, where I always knew I wanted to tell my family's story. Because when I look at my parents, I do think they are the epitome of what the American dream is. Mom's Mexican-American, my dad a Cambodian refugee. When you look at the struggles and hardships, what we've gone through in the family and what we've been able to build as a family, I knew that was a story I wanted to share in one way or another.
Being home during COVID just (pauses)... it was a catalyst to allow me to be able to start telling that story. The commitment really started probably like 50 days into shooting. I had a friend who was an editor and I said, "You know what, take a look at this footage, and just start putting the assembly together." By day 50 or 60, all these hours of footage became like a 10-hour assembly. I've never done a documentary before, (was) not familiar with the treatment-writing process. So what I actually did was I began writing a script based off the footage that lived in those first 50 days of shooting, like an actual narrative script with the slug lines and character descriptions and everything, and really kind of a reverse-engineering way of storytelling. Once I had this probably 30- or 40-page script, I handed that back off to my editor, he started putting together a first act and I started seeing this story forming. And we're only like in the middle of May at this point, but I was like, "OK, I think, there's an interesting juxtaposition here of this footage I captured of my family creating their American dream."
But then with 2020, with a pandemic, it's a matter of how do you keep that dream alive during a very uncertain time. So that's when the wheels really began turning. And then that juxtaposition kind of carried onwards as the world we were living in was continuing to evolve with the Black Lives Matter movement and the election and everything. So it was an interesting process of, "OK, when is it that we have a story here?" And to answer the question about how did my family feel about that... like I mentioned, at first it was just, "OK, David's just holding the camera. He has nothing to do right now because we're in this pandemic." But once we actually did the sizzle reel and the trailer, as you see in the film, I think that's when the reaction kind of went from being, "Oh, it's just David doing this thing," to, "Oh, wow, there perhaps is a real story here."
The question that comes up is: Is it worth sharing this story, if it's something that could threaten everything that we've been working towards (over) the past 20 years? There was a lot of uneasiness and tension. I think you see that in the scene after that phone call, where my mom says, "You don't live here, David." And there's truth to that. At the end of the day, I get to go back home to New York and live my life while my family, they're part of the community. It's to a point now where I feel like we are very proud of the film. And it was such a familial effort making this film; they have been supportive and are just really excited to get our story out there.
While we get to know your whole family pretty well in "Bad Axe," it's the relationship between your sister, Jaclyn, and your father that emerged as an anchor to a lot of what your family contended with. Part of that is because they're so frank, sometimes to the point of being explosive with each other. How did you view that footage of them in particular while piecing together the story about your family? And what role does their dynamic play for you in the movie?
Yeah, the roles they play (pauses)... I think an important thing with this film is you see the clash and the generational tension between my dad, who has this experience of surviving a genocide and being a refugee and coming to the U.S., and you see his trauma. Then there's this other layer of, OK, how does generational trauma play into his kids? His experiences of what he's gone through very much has shaped himself as a father, and that gets passed down to us. I think that was one important aspect of really showing the tension between the generations, because they just are so different.
On the flip side of that, what I really hope the film offers is a message of hope. You see these two worlds clashing, and then you also see the bigger picture of where our country is at, and how divided we are as well. It's kind of like our family is this proxy for our country, where there is so much internal tension. But as different as we may see things at the end, you do see that we do love each other and we do stick together. Even though we might not agree with everything, there is that sense of hope that love is stronger than our divisions. At the end of the day, you do see that even though we want different things there's still a love and understanding and respect with each other.
Those generational fault lines popped up early and often in the movie for me; you show how the ripple effects of the last two years had their own ripple effects. Do you think generational differences are something to overcome or to be embraced?
(pauses) I think it's a little of both, honestly. It's interesting, when I think of the way my dad raised us, he always taught us to speak up and do the right thing. I think that's why my siblings and I are as vocal as we are about change in our community. But then, on the flip side, you see (how) Chun, my dad, he's someone who never had the chance to speak up. If he did during the time that he was in Cambodia, he wouldn't be here today.
I think it's really interesting that with the Black Lives Matter movement and speaking up, he values the safety of us. That's so important to him that where we don't see (his) point of view is when, like, "Well wait, you told us to speak up all our lives." So when you really look at the generational fault lines as something to embrace or something to overcome, it's a little of both. As much as our dad has taught us all of our life growing up, which is something we embrace, I feel like we also teach him, too—that is a challenge to overcome. It's an interesting question, because both generations can learn from each other, but can also grow and become better. I honestly think that we have done that with my dad, and it has been a challenge for him. But at the same time, we wouldn't be that way if it weren't for what he taught us.
You mentioned that you started piecing together the footage fairly early on, in May of 2020. The movie covers a seven-month period culminating in the November election. How much longer after that did you continue to edit and continuously look at this footage of what you've gone through for the better part of a year?
We just wrapped up, I don't even think a month ago.
Yeah, I guess like April (or) May 2020 to February 2022. It was a very, very long edit process, and I do have to credit both my editors. Peter Wagner, he was the first editor we brought on, and he edited for about half that duration. Then we brought on another editor, Rosie Walunas, who was a pair of fresh eyes that really worked on this foundation that Peter and I had built, and really helped us connect a lot of dots.
I think the reason why the edit process took as long as it did was I'm learning so much about myself, as I think a lot of people are as we're living through this pandemic. I think this film would even be different for myself if I would have made this in 2016, 2017. I think I might have done it more from a place of resentment and anger. But living these past couple years during this pandemic, it's really (pauses)... even within myself, (it's) allowed me to see that there is hope for our country, and love will ultimately, hopefully, overcome the bad. How we look at the pandemic in 2020 versus how we look at it now, I think it's a little bit different. You're learning and growing as a person, which ultimately is affecting the story that you're telling, especially when it's so current.
Would you say that the final product is your family's 2020 experiences filtered through a more hopeful 2021 lens?
That's a good question; yes and no. It was important for me to stay truthful – obviously, it being a documentary – to everything that did happen. So those moments you see early on in the beginning of the film, they're as raw as they are because that's what the footage is. I think previous cuts we had, for lack of a better word, may have been more political. I realized that's not what the film really needs to be; the film isn't about our views on politics, but how our views on politics more so affects, internally, ourselves as a family. That's why I say, like, looking at it through a lens now... we don't need to be divided any more as a country. I think it is very apparent how my family feels and I think it's more so, "OK, let's show the audience through our lens of how we feel about everything without telling them how they necessarily should feel about everything."
That was something that evolved in the edit, going from 2020 to 2021 to even where we are at now. I think that might be a little exhausting if this were something as political as I might have thought it would have been when we were making it in 2020. And also the ending was just so unexpected. I think in all the previous cuts, this message of hope was so important for me to find, and with the pregnancy reveal at the end, it's like, "Oh, that's a glimmer of hope that we're all looking for." That's when a lot of things really, really began to tie together, especially by touching on the generational aspects of the film.
I feel like the pieces were there in early cuts, but then when Reiya, my niece, was born, it just became so much more clear—how do we tell this story of generations and legacy and turning over the leaf? That's something that was very much looked at from a 2021, '22 lens.
One of the last shots is Jaclyn and your father embracing after the pregnancy announcement. You're left with, alright, whatever stuff they've gone through the last two years, in this moment it's bridged. They can move forward.
Exactly. It's that message of hope, you know? You see these two forces that are just clashing with each other this entire movie, and at the end they're brought together by love. Hopefully that gives a strong feeling of hope for the audience.
"Bad Axe" also strikes me as a very transparent documentary. You share your family in some incredibly raw times. You even make it a point to include how the movie's fundraising campaign impacted the restaurant; that becomes a big turning point in the story. Is that openness something you had to build up to, or is that how you organically approach filmmaking?
I think the honest answer is (it's) just an honest approach to filmmaking. At first I wasn't even in the early cuts of the film. And obviously the film, as you would imagine, felt a lot different. I think part of that was (asking) what is the intention behind this film, if you don't hear that voice behind the camera or you get that reveal of another family member that's part of this. We found out my perspective as a director is important to telling this story and giving intention.
A love letter concept, which I think is such a strong concept in the film, it would never even get across if I weren't in it. I think once we realized it needed this voice behind the camera, and not necessarily one that's taking front and center, but one that was just giving intention to so much of the footage. The decision (to include the scene) where my mom says, "You don't belong here, you don't live here," it just became instinctual. Because I did need to answer for myself, that wasn't something that could be ignored.
What role do you think movies can play going forward as we continue to reckon with the turmoil of everything from the last two years? And when I say movies, I'm not just talking about traditional, fact-based documentaries, but other personal ones like you made.
I think it's a role that movies have continued to play throughout history. For me, at least, it's creating empathy. Allowing an audience to feel an experience and see an experience that is different from their own. Because that's how we create conversation. I think that is one of the beauties and one of the most powerful things about film and cinema, is being able to live in another person's shoes and have a conversation. Especially films right now, with where our world and country is at where it's hard to have conversations with one another.
I hope with a film like "Bad Axe" that people can watch the film, and maybe they don't agree with our family, but maybe they'll understand and it will allow for us to have a conversation with one another, knowing where we're coming from. That is a role films have played in the past, but now more than ever are so important.
Do you ever see yourself moving back to Bad Axe for good?
(laughs) No, no, I don't. You know, the funny thing is when I moved out to LA in 2015, making $10 an hour as like an assistant, I still found a way to come home to Bad Axe once a month. And since then I've still made an effort to go home once a month. My fiancée and I live in New York, but we go to Bad Axe all the time, and as much as I love my crazy family, I don't think I could personally live in Bad Axe.
But it's a place that we're always going to gravitate towards, because it is home. I do want to eventually, you know, build a nice home in Bad Axe one day in the near-future, (that) hopefully the kids can enjoy. As far as living in Bad Axe permanently, I don't think that's in the cards. But it'll always be part of our life.
"Bad Axe" is currently awaiting acquisition.