"Can we even break bread together?": Enduring the American Dream in a Michigan family restaurant

"Bad Axe" director David Siev and producer Daniel Dae Kim discuss an immigrant business, Asian hate and activism

Published November 18, 2022 11:15AM (EST)

Bad Axe (IFC Films)
Bad Axe (IFC Films)

The following contains spoilers from "American Horror Story: NYC" Episodes 9 and 10, the finale.

The following contains spoilers from "American Horror Story: NYC" Episodes 9 and 10, the finale.

David Siev's cogent, heartfelt documentary, "Bad Axe," is an examination of his family during the pandemic that also addresses issues of racism and Asian hate in America's heartland. 

The film, executive produced by Daniel Dae Kim, introduces David's father, Chun, a survivor of the Cambodian Killing Fields, who came to America with his mother and siblings. David's mother, Rachel, is Mexican American. They established a home and opened a donut shop in Bad Axe, Michigan. Now the establishment is a family restaurant, Rachel's. David's sister, Jaclyn, helps run the business, which struggles at the onset of the pandemic. Moreover, when Jaclyn and other family members attend a Black Lives Matter protest, they encounter some White Supremacists, who create a backlash, threatening the family and their restaurant.

"The idea of what the American experience is needs to expand."

"Bad Axe" depicts the way Jaclyn stands up and speaks out as well as how the racism impacts her family; her father already suffers from PTSD. But other storylines show how one of Rachel's employees, who was a Trump supporter, changed her mind when exposed to diversity. (The rural area is very conservative). 

Siev's film is compelling as a year unfolds and changes — good and bad, personal and political — revealing the strength, resilience and close-knit nature of this family. 

Siev and Kim spoke with Salon about this moving documentary.

David, you made this film as a love letter to Bad Axe, a town that you love but does not always love you back. What do you love and hate about Bad Axe, and what would you change? It was a year of change that you record. 

David Siev: When I say the film is a love letter to Bad Axe, it was this knee-jerk reaction to my parents, specifically my dad, scolding me that what I was doing was going to have repercussions not only for the restaurant, but for our family. While I say it's a love letter to Bad Axe, it's so much more of a love letter to my family and everything we've been through and being thankful for that experience. It created this bond that made us so close. The love I have for my family is unconditional. They are imperfect people, just like I am, but at the end of the day, we still come together. And Bad Axe is this very imperfect place. I was grateful I was able to grow up in that community, but at the same time, it is a community that has a long way to go.

"The consequences we face as a Mexican-Cambodian family are not the same consequences that a white person would face."

And there are so many other places in the Unites States that are like Bad Axe. How do we create dialogue and change in these communities so people can look at my family and see what it means to be American? People don't think of my family when they think of a traditional American family, but the reality is that there are so many families like mine living in communities like Bad Axe, MI, and they are going through similar experiences that we did. That experience is part of their American experience. I wanted to open this dialogue of what that American experience is, and that does include my family. That's where I would love to see the direction of Bad Axe change and accept the experiences that may be different from others. What I love about Bad Axe is that it has made our family who we are today. I'm grateful for that and the people who have supported our business and helped us when we needed it most. The idea of what the American experience is needs to expand. 

Bad AxeBad Axe (IFC Films)

David, what can you say about your family? There is a sense of sacrifice. There is love. There is fighting. There is diversity. There is willfulness. What forges your family's bond and why do you think it is so strong?

Siev: What forges our family and makes us so strong is the fact that at the end of the day, as different as we are, and the different opinions we have, we just want what's best with our family. It takes a lot of communication to get there together. We don't shy away from having the tough conversations. In order to be the best that we can be, we need to go through those tough conversations together. Being so close and being able to have those conversations allows us to create that bond. We're all so grateful to have that. All the adversity we had to overcome together, with the restaurant, there is this resilience that we are all aware of and still working on today.

Daniel, how did you identify with David's family's story? 

Daniel Dae Kim: There were two major ways. One is that I could understand the multigenerational story in the film. There is a very distinct and marked difference when it comes to the older generation of immigrants and the second generation, or 1.5 generation of immigrants. David's father's Chun's perspective was on being American, was like my father's, the idea we need to keep our heads down and work hard and we shouldn't expect anything from our country; we should just work to contribute. And that contrasts with the way I feel about being an American, and David's generation as well. It's about a dialogue. We contribute to this country and deserve to be thought of as Americans with all the rights and privileges that come with being an American. 

The second part is this notion of being fully American, we have a voice that comes along with it. Our generation are much more vocal and how we find and use our voice as we contribute to the way our society is moving. It was their family finding their own voices and it was a microcosm of Asian Americans, and Mexicans, and people of color finding our voice in the kind of symphony of America.

Siev: So much of the through line in the film is the American Dream. My parents' American Dream was so much of what Daniel was saying about his parents: It was: keep your head down, support your family, pay your mortgage and send your kids to college. That was their dream. Our generation absolutely includes all of that but then there is this other layer of being seen as an American and have voices, and opinions and thoughts that matter just as much as everyone else's

"When Asian Americans or BIPOC people speak out there should be no expectation that they shouldn't."

Kim: The irony of all this is that they tell us that we're doing all this to give you a better life. That you are not going to suffer in the way that we suffered. Living that "better life" comes with some unexpected costs and our exercise of our voice and our place in America often can lead to things that they never would have expected. 

What about the risks of standing up and speaking out? There is political awareness but there is also a backlash. The Black Lives Matter protest Jaclyn attends is a pivotal scene in the film. 

Siev: My siblings and I and my family respond to this call to activism but the consequences we face as a Mexican-Cambodian family are not the same consequences that a white person would face. You see that with the letter we receive and the death threats from Neo-Nazis and being told to go back to where you came from, which are so specific to the BIPOC experience. It was important to show that in the film because when we put the fundraising trailer out there, the comments were that Bad Axe doesn't have a racism problem. When you see the film, people saw these experiences are real and telling these experiences are important.

Kim: I'm reminded of the Asian proverb, "The grass that grows the tallest gets cut down first." That is the challenge that we as second or 1.5 generations is that we can have a voice and our blade of grass can grow tall. David is saying we do have a voice, and its legitimate, and we can contribute to the progress in culture. That mindset is something that not only traditional Asian Americans need to overcome but society at large needs to overcome. 

"It's a generalized environment where hate has become normalized, and this is the thing we need to fight against."

When Asian Americans or BIPOC people speak out there should be no expectation that they shouldn't. It should not come as a surprise when BIPOC people have an opinion, or a movement like Black Lives Matter. We have a voice that is worthy and that is something that should be expected from both the perspective of people of color and those outside of it.

Can you both speak to the topic of Asian hate, racism, and discrimination, that is addressed in the film. How can the awareness of this topic foment change?

Siev: It's all about being able to start a conversation about all of these issues the film raises, whether that is intergenerational trauma, racism or a call to action. My approach was humanizing these themes — putting a real family/human face behind these issues. Hopefully, when people see the film, they no longer look at us as being "the other side." They see us as their fellow community members or fellow American. They see a real family going through these real issues, regardless of what side of the political spectrum I am on. Because we are so imperfect, I hope they can see a little bit of themselves through my dad, or Jaclyn and me. 

Do I think people are going to change the way they vote after seeing this film? Probably not. But have I witnessed people willing to take a step forward and have a conversation? Absolutely, and that's what gives me hope. Change happens incredibly slow, but we need to look at each other as humans and have a conversation with one another.

Kim: That's what makes it universal. The situation affecting African Americans and Asian Americans and Mexican and Latino Americans, but this is about hate in general in our society. It's not just Asian Americans who have been the victims of being staggering increased violence and hate. Its Jewish Americans. It's Muslim Americans. It's a generalized environment where hate has become normalized, and this is the thing we need to fight against. This film might be about three different communities but it's about all marginalized communities. One of the messages of "Bad Axe" is that we are all stronger together. If we can come together and embrace one another, including our differences, that is what is encapsulated in Bad Axe. The patrons of this restaurant are a microcosm of our society. Can we literally break bread together? Can we come together despite differences and sit down and share space and ideas and community? All of us suffered through that pandemic, a common mutual experience we all share, and it's a prism where all these ideas are reflected. 

Daniel, what can you say about using your celebrity to champion films like "Bad Axe." Do you have intentions of producing or participating in projects that have a more political focus?

Kim: I am very proud to be associated with this film. I'm proud of David and the message of this film is so important. It's not a film I wanted to be a part of because it's political, I wanted to be a part of this film because it speaks to our need for understanding and to humanize and be humanized. Whatever the side of the political aisle you are on, it asks us to look beyond that and look to human being that believes those things and find that level of understanding that brings us together. Because we can and should be able to all live together. 

Siev: We have done that in the past. It's feels like it's become a little more distant in recent years. Rachel's wouldn't be what it is today if we didn't have that. There is hope for that.

Kim: Happy to champion projects that encourage unity and understanding in this time of polarization and tribalism.  

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Can you discuss your intentions with your film to tell a larger story through the experiences of your own family?

Siev: When I first began editing, I felt like I lost my sense of direction about why I was making this film. The early cuts reflected my wanting to preach to the echo chambers that would turn off half the audience. It was to my family's credit that they had a hard conversation with me and reminded me why I was making this film in the first place. It was because they wanted to share their story even before I picked up a camera. My family encapsulates so much of what the American Dream is. Through those conversations and thinking of the intention behind the film, it was to share our story and humanize these experiences and open up what an American family is. And the most effective way to do that was through the most personal lens. It had to come from the most personal level and allowed anyone to see a part of themselves in our family after going through a consequential year together and our family's experience of living in Bad Axe in 2020. 

Daniel, did you get to eat at Rachel's and what do you recommend?

Kim: No, I haven't yet! I have not been able to go to the restaurant, so one of my missions is to get there. 

"Bad Axe" is available in theaters and on demand starting Nov. 18.


By Gary M. Kramer

Gary M. Kramer is a writer and film critic based in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter.

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