By Erin Chew, AsAmNews Staff Writer
This year’s 23rd San Diego Asian Film Festival (SDAFF) kicked off with David Siev’s Bad Axe – a documentary that captures what its like to live in a small town, and how this close-knit community can turn insular and divisive ( especially during the turbulent events of the last few years).
It is a story about the Sievs- a close-knit Asian Mexican American family living in rural Michigan as they fight to keep their American dream alive – their family restaurant ‘Rachels’.
Throughout the documentary, David who is filming the day-to-day going-ons of his family at home, their life in and out of the restaurant, and all their relationship’s highs and lows describes the film as a ‘love letter’ to Bad Axe, the Michigan town he grew up in. Coming from a blended family with Cambodian father ‘Chun Siev’ (who escaped as a teenager from the killing fields) and ‘Rachel Siev’ (daughter of Mexican immigrants), the film provides an insight into the resilience of a family who represents cultural minorities in America surrounded by a conservative, White small town people and community.
There are threats made against the family in the form of racist letters and community boycotts of the restaurant as tensions rose around anti-Asian racism, Black Lives Matter, pandemic lockdown orders and the restaurant strictly enforcing social distancing and mask mandates. It also shows how new ideas, determination, family and strong resolve can overcome all obstacles and the importance of taking a stance and standing up for themselves amidst social unrest.
The Siev family is currently on a 45-day national film tour, and at the opening night of SDAFF, Chun, Rachel, Jacklyn Siev (David’s sister) and Kat Vasquez ( producer and David’s wife) were present and represented David (as he was unable to be present due to conflicting schedules) and spoke about generational trauma, the importance of love and family and why they decided to make their lives so public despite threats and safety concerns.
“I think if I were to speak with David, he made this film because he saw that our family has a story to tell. He wanted to record the moments which make up our family. Of course, it’s not comfortable knowing that all our dirty laundry would be out in public, but the film is a way for us to speak out and share our story. Our dad is a former Cambodian refugee who survived the killing fields and our mom is the daughter of Mexican immigrants raising a family in the small rural town of Bad Axe – that in itself is a story to tell”, said Jaclyn.
Chun said David wanted to present an oral history of the family and this is the family’s way of supporting him.
” I have survived torture as a teenager in Cambodia, so I am not afraid of our lives being so public”, Chun mentioned.
Like many businesses in America, trying to stay afloat was a struggle and continues to be with the pandemic, but with the Siev’s the added challenge was surviving in a small rural community where racial and political tensions were high.
“For me, the most important thing was the safety for my family. I survived the killing fields as a teenager, but my father and other members of my extended family were executed by the Khmer Rouge. My strong mom was able to take me and my 5 other siblings safely to America and make our lives here. So even though running our restaurant during the pandemic was a struggle, nothing compared to my life and death experience, and I will survive this pandemic for my family”, said Chun.
The film also captured the tumultuous time when the Black Lives Matters protests were happening as a response to the police killing of George Floyd. Jaclyn was involved in organizing the local Black Lives Matter protests, with David filming the confrontation she had with Nazi-like White supremacists who were present at the protests as counter-protestors. Jaclyn later shared the confrontation on social media and that spurred racial threats of violence, family members getting followed by White supremacist individuals, abusive phone calls and restaurant boycotts. That time period was a major challenge for the Siev’s, and generational differences in managing the situation caused conflict, argument and heightened emotions.
“We all knew there would be some backlash from standing up against hate and racism, but we never expected it to be almost marginalized. There was definitely fear and I think audiences will see that when they watch the film, but if I had a do-over, I wouldn’t change a thing because it is time we stand up for what’s right. As kids growing up we were always taunted with racist rhetoric like “go back to China” etc, so I wanted my voice and my presence to be visible”, Jaclyn exclaimed.
Rachel admitted her children’s activism made her nervous and she feared the possible consequences.
“Chun and I never spoke up since we decided to live, raise a family and run our business in small town Bad Axe. We kept our head down all the time, I guess its a generational thing. Despite the dangers, we as parents are proud of our children for standing up for what’s right and it shows we raised them right, Rachel said.
Bad Axe has just been announced as the winner for the ‘Best Documentary Feature’ at ‘The Jury Awards’ for SDAFF. Talks are currently underway about a theatrical release, but if you would like to catch the film, the Siev’s are still on a national film tour. You can check out the ‘Bad Axe’ website for future screening details.
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