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The T-Spot: David Siev

David Siev’s directorial debut is the captivating documentary Bad Axe, a searingly intimate portrayal of the Siev family surviving the year 2020 in the town of Bad Axe, or as David jokingly described: “Nowhere, Michigan”. The film charts their determination to keep Rachels, their family restaurant, open amidst the Covid-19 pandemic before capturing their collective resistance to rampant white supremacy. Siev expertly uses his family to measure the scale of these global disasters, observing how these issues impact individual people with stunning clarity.

Bad Axe has only recently been released and already it has garnered critical praise, beating Amy Poehler’s Lucy and Desi for the Best First Documentary Feature at the Critics’ Choice awards. I chatted to David about his love for his hometown, his surprising inspirations, and his opinionated family.

Chun Siev sat in front of a TV with the news playing.
Scene from Bad Axe, courtesy of IFC Films

I was really interested with how much of this film was collaborative between you and your family, it really strips back what we know of a documentary through onscreen conversations that you participate in. I am curious if that collaborative tone was something you were really conscious of when you were making it, if you wanted to invite them into the process?

Yeah, absolutely. I mean the film was such a collaborative effort among producers, editors, but especially my family. I mean I really did try to keep them involved every step of the way. When I started off filming, I wasn’t quite sure if this was going to be a documentary, but I’ve always wanted to have a way of sharing my family’s story.

It was around the time of the Black Lives Matter movement that I began editing the film. And it became very clear to me that this American Dream story that I always wanted to share about my family was unfolding itself in front of me in the form of everything I was shooting over the past few months. Having said that, my family have always been pretty comfortable with the camera always being around them. I always loved bottling them in memories, through photography or home videos. So, when I began filming Bad Axe it wasn’t like “oh, David’s making a movie” it was more so “David’s just doing what he always does and that’s just him with a camera.” I think that’s part of why the film feels so intimate in some ways because they’re never really talking to the camera they’re talking to me – the son, the brother.

You know trust is something that is so important between the subject and the filmmaker. For me, that trust was already established in many ways when I began filming them, because, like I mentioned, that’s just what they were comfortable with. But where trust became very important was when I actually sat down and began editing hundreds of hours of footage and really began showing them as their own imperfect characters with their own flaws and their own journeys that they’re going on and with their own things going on while navigating the year of 2020. So, during that editing process it was really important to keep everyone involved, to maintain that sense of trust. You see how close we are as a family, I think that is part of the reason we’re able to achieve all that we have in Bad Axe. You know, from the time my parents packed up and moved to Bad Axe, Michigan to open up a doughnut shop we have always had to work there, that’s how we have been able to keep the doors open and make it through the most difficult times and make it through 2020.

So the making of this film was no different, it was such a familial effort. It really needed everyone’s fingerprints on it in a way, I wanted everyone to be comfortable with what we were showing in the film, but as a director sometimes you need to be able to explain yourself and show all these moments, as tough as they may be to watch, because they’re important. It was collaborative in that sense, they would give me notes with what they were comfortable with showing and how things were being shown, and you know I would try and listen as much as I can. I have a very opinionated family, there’s no way I could listen to what everyone is saying, but I could listen to a little bit of what everyone is saying, and you keep that in the back of your mind while you’re editing the film and that is what helps maintain that sense of trust between all of us. You know saying “I hear you. Let me work on this scene” or “let me work on this part of the story and let me come back and show you.”

I think at the end of the day now that this film is out there and my family have seen the response, I’m so glad that trust went two-ways, and that collaborative effort was something we all put in together in this film about family.

I read this quote that you gave in an interview, “find the story that is most personal to you, that doesn’t let you sleep at night, and make sure you’re the one that tells it.” Obviously, Bad Axe is a very literal interpretation of that. This is your family, this is your story and truly no one else could tell it in the same way. But I’m curious, at what point in the film did you go: “OK, this is going to be about my family, in this year and it is going to be a documentary”? At what point did you have a clear vision and it wasn’t just footage you were shooting?

I think it was right after that Black Lives Matter movement. It became clear that the story I always wanted to share had to be told with the backdrop of 2020. The American Dream is something that we have fought so hard to build for almost two decades in Bad Axe but we were being challenged all over again in 2020 to keep that dream alive. The challenge is it presented itself in such a unique way.

You see in the film that my siblings and I attend a Black Lives Matter protest and then we’re made to feel like outsiders in our community for speaking up and using our voice and that was disheartening for all of us. Here we are, part of the community of Bad Axe for almost two decades and really feeling like we are a part of that community, but then we use our voice for one of the first times and it was met with the response of “if you don’t like it here go back to Cambodia” from some people.

Jaclyn Siev at a Black Lives Matter protest in Bad Axe.
Scene from Bad Axe, courtesy of IFC Films

At that point it became much clearer that the story I always wanted to share about my family had to be told through the lens of today. What I had hoped would happen through sharing my story was that it would open up this dialogue, this conversation, about what the American experience is.

The fact of the matter is that not everyone in our community, or our country, would look at families like mine as being an American family, but the reality is that so much of the US is built on the experience of refugees and immigrants. My family’s experience is included in that therefore it is the American experience. We shouldn’t be told to “go back to Cambodia” when we are using our voice, just like how anyone else has a right to do that in the US, so why is that happening to us? Why are we having those barriers put around us? And I think that’s why this film is so urgent, why it needs to be told, we need to expand on what this idea of “traditional American values” is. In the opening letter, that person’s ideas of traditional American values…they have every right to believe that, but that’s not traditional American values, it is traditional to you, but we need to open up that experience of what traditional American values even are. And I believe my family’s experience is just as American as any of my neighbours.

So that is why after we attended the Black Lives Matter protest, we’re using our voice and we’re getting all this backlash, people telling us to go back to Cambodia, people telling us they’re not going to support our restaurant, it just became very clear that this is why my family’s story matters.

I read this review of the film that basically said: everyone thinks that their family would make the subject of a great documentary but here is one that actually does. I just thought that was so accurate. Your film also just did a really excellent job of demonstrating how the national and societal conversations we’re having trickle down into everyday conflicts and everyday considerations. You couldn’t have known this was going to take place when you started filming. I remember when Covid start it was like maybe this will be a couple months…

Yeah, we’ll be back in work by May at the latest!

Exactly! What was it like to revisit that footage with a bit of distance?

Right, it’s interesting because we really began editing in early June 2020. With this film the nuance adds so much to it because, as you were saying, no one knew what was going to happen that year, we didn’t know what was going on day to day, week to week. Like I mentioned, when my girlfriend – who’s now my wife – when we moved back home from New York, we said “we’ll probably be back home by the end of April, if not May. This is going to be something that upends our life for a few weeks and that’s it.” That’s obviously not the case. It changed this entire countr- it changed this entire world.

I think that’s why the early half of the film feels very nuanced and more like a slice of life piece of a family just navigating their own journey of: What is a pandemic? How do we keep our restaurant going during this uncertain time? And then more and more starts to happen with the Black Lives Matter protest and the racial reckoning and this important election in our country. So, while editing the film, I don’t think, at least in the early process, I was just focused on what this experience was like for our family and unfolding naturally in that way.

I think by the time the end of the film…a year later when I’m done shooting – and you know editing takes a long time, just because we’re editing and shooting at the same time doesn’t mean we are even close to being finished by March 2021. So, I guess when we began editing again in March there is all this perspective that happens, there is time to reflect on all that has happened in this year. What is the appropriate way to tell my family’s story with 2020 being the backdrop? I kind of chuckle at reviews sometimes that are like “I don’t think David has realised that what he captured is bigger than his family but a microcosm of America.” And I kind of laugh at that because that’s not giving me enough credit!

Scene from Bad Axe documentary.
Scene from Bad Axe, courtesy of IFC Films

I do think that what is going on in this restaurant and in this community, very much is a microcosm of everything that is going on in the US. You’re just getting a microscope and you’re seeing through a very personal lens…I think that’s where the perspective became very key to me in being able to reflect back, from the time later in the editing process to the looking at the early stages of footage. I wanted to tell this story of America and what was going on but in the most personal way. Bad Axe isn’t the only place, the Siev family isn’t the only family, that went through this this year. This experience is all too familiar to so many different families and communities just like Bad Axe, Michigan. So, I think editing much later…it became really important to explore a lot of those themes that showed that this is America.

I also live in big city and moved back to the small town my parents live in at the beginning of the pandemic. Something that I have been reflecting on a lot since seeing the film is the small moments where your family remind you “we live here, you’ve left.” How did you go about trying to capture something honestly while still being empathetic to this town, this worldview, this community?

Yeah, that moment in the film where we release this fundraising trailer for the film and there is this community backlash including a call from white supremacists, which really puts a lot of pressure and anxieties on the family. My Mum turns around to me and says, “you don’t live here, David.” She’s so right in that moment. At the end of the day, I’m back here in New York, my parents and my family they’re still in Bad Axe, Michigan. So, they have to put up with any consequences come as a result of this film

I think it’s important to show that, because the film begins to become self-interrogating at that point for myself. I have to take a step back and explain why I say that this film is a love letter to Bad Axe. When I say that to my Dad, when we’re having an argument, I don’t know if I truly meant that. I honestly think that was just a knee-jerk reaction, you know a son getting scolded by his father and you try to justify your actions. But then my wife sat me down and said, “we need to talk about this love letter concept. There must have been a deeper reason you said that.” She sat down and she talked to me for like an hour. What it really boiled down to is that Bad Axe is imperfect it has it’s issues just like any other community. It has issues with racism and being politically divided…

Despite that, Bad Axe is still my home and I’m so grateful for the upbringing I had there. The love I have for it is unconditional, when something is unconditional you never stop fighting for it, you always want it to get better. That’s the way Bad Axe is. I need to have hope in that community. I hope that the film provides that sense of hope to anyone.

The reality is, people in Bad Axe, people who think differently than us and people who might not agree with my family, they’re not bad people at all. They’re fully realised humans, just as much as me and you. I think it’s important to remember that. It is important to look at each other as your fellow community member, your fellow human. Because that is all I’m asking for at the end of the day too, to be included in what this idea of the American experience is. But for me I can’t exclude the community of Bad Axe from that either. We need to be able to have conversations with each other, to be able to talk to each other.

I hope the reason the film has as much empathy as I hope is portrayed is because we aren’t perfect, we’re imperfect just like anyone else in the community. We have our family problems, we fight, we argue, we have our own emotional trauma that we go through, (obviously my Dad is very different.) My point is that I hope when people watch this film, regardless of what side of the political spectrum they’re on they can find a way of seeing a little bit of themselves in our family…

What’s been incredible is I have witnessed it first-hand; I’ve witnessed it so much in the past month since this film has been out. Over Thanksgiving break, Bad Axe was screening in Bad Axe for two weeks, and I went home, and I would pop into Q&As, just because it’s my community, its important, people are there they bought a ticket, they brought their families, and they showed up to this screening. So, I would go to as many of the Q&As as I could. At every single Q&A there was someone in the room who would raise their hand and would say, “you know I might not agree with your family at all politically, we might have different views, but thank you for opening up an experience that I did not know existed in my community.” That’s all I want! I won right there! Even if it was one person but it was multiple people. That was just so special. Awards, accolades, those are all great and I’m grateful for those, but I’m much more grateful for this real dialogue and this conversation that is happening, that people are no longer looking at us like this “other”, like this Mexican-Asian-American family, like no! We are just as much a part of the Bad Axe community, just as American, as anyone else here. The fact that people have been willing to open up their hearts, and show empathy, and want to have conversations about that, it has truly been the most incredible experience.

That’s really cool that you got to do so many Q&As at your hometown!

They’re really, really important to me. To get to do these Q&As and to have real conversations, because it’s like why else do we make films if there’s not a conversation that can be had after it?

I wanted to share with you [looks through phone]…I can’t find it! So, there was one individual who reached out to my Mum yesterday…you’ve seen the opening of the film with the big Trump flags and sign, the person that owns that reached out to my Mum yesterday and they said the exact same thing, they said “this story transcends politics and while we don’t agree with your family thank you for sharing your story and opening our hearts.” That’s crazy to me! That’s like the best thing I could have asked for with this film is a response just like that. I was just so grateful for all of it.

In some ways this is all new to me because this is all just happening, you know we just put the film out there. I’ll be honest it is so easy to get wrapped up in awards campaigns and all that stuff, but then when I take a step back and I think about it I’m like oh, this is exactly what I hoped the film would do.

The Siev family and Bad Axe producers at the film's SXSW premiere.
Bad Axe at SXSW Film Festival

What were the films that made you want to make films? Were there specific documentaries you referred back to?

Films that made me want to make films…there are so many. Such an obvious answer but Martin Scorsese. That guy’s my hero! Goodfellas obviously. There were some structural things I took from that movie, that influenced me in the making of this.

What were the structural things you borrowed?

Well, I always love it when reviewers, for better or worse, say that Bad Axe takes such a narrative filmmaking approach. I’m like thank you! Some reviewers don’t like that but whatever, to me that’s so great! I always chuckle when people are like “wow, you’re movie didn’t feel like a documentary it felt like a real movie.” That one makes me laugh. But I get what they mean right? It feels like you’re watching a narrative film.

With Scorsese, I love the opening of Goodfellas, or many of his movies. Goodfellas opens up with the body in the trunk and you’re like “OK, we’re going to come back to this at some point.” Obviously, Martin Scorsese wasn’t the first person to do this, but that being one of my favourite films, I was like what is the moment in my film I can open up with that’s going to be in the back of the audience’s mind, that they’re going to be like “OK we’re going to catch up to that at some point.” The film becomes so nuanced in the first half of it, and you’re waiting, at least I hope you’re waiting, for this letter that happens at the beginning. So that’s just one example.

Another film that I love is Me and Earl and the Dying Girl. That film was also very influential to Bad Axe. For me I love Brian Eno, I love the way that Me and Earl and the Dying Girl just flooded that entire movie with his music and the emotions it brought out. In the making of Bad Axe, in the rough cuts, it was all Brian Eno music.

Documentaries that influenced us, one of them is Miss Americana, I love Taylor Swift. I have a photo of her in my office. But also its about a person finding their voice and having to put up with the consequences.

But then I think from a more personal level, Minding the Gap was such a big influence for me, just in the sense of how to tell personal stories in the most empathetic way. Diane Quon who produced Minding the Gap is also the producer on this film as well. Bing Liu who directed that film was so helpful to me when I was trying to navigate whether to include myself or not include myself. The word he left me with was intention. He was like, “you need to think about the intention of this film.” Basically, that resulted in me being like OK, I need to include myself in this film because it gives so much intention as to why I am telling this story.

Last night I actually ended up watching the Sarah Polley film Stories We Tell for the first time. It really reminded me in some ways of Bad Axe – the way she plays with her own figure in front of the camera and reveals her own intention in making the film. It was great.

Oh, I love that! Minari was also a big one. Really pulled at my heart strings, and I was like I want the audience to walk away feeling like how this movie feels at the end, just being about family…I can go on and on. I feel like all my favourite movies somehow have their fingerprints in Bad Axe. I’m sure that will be the same for many movies to come.

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