The documentary “Bad Axe” plays like a very personal home movie because that’s exactly what it is. A son (director David Siev) turns his camera on his Asian-American family during the start of the COVID pandemic lockdown, filming their everyday routine and household banter. This project could have been an uninteresting, too-exclusive account of day to day life, but Siev wisely lets the story guide his documentary’s path. This takes the narrative into places that are unexpected, compelling, and universal.
Siev captures the fear so many of us had at the onset of the pandemic. Not knowing how the virus was spread was bad enough, but worrying about our elderly parents added to the stress. The Sievs own a restaurant, which began to struggle when hit with forced closures. The kids stepped in and came home to run the business while their mom and dad could quarantine safely at home. It’s a beautiful look at a very kind (and sympathetic) family that lives to support each other.
From there, Siev explores a little family history, the most compelling aspect being his father’s story. His dad Chun was a Cambodian refugee who came to America with his mother and five siblings to escape the horrific Killing Fields of the Khmer Rouge regime. There is a lot of deep trauma from surviving a genocide, and the emotion is bubbling beneath the surface. It explodes in mean episodes directed at Chun’s daughter Jaclyn.
Siev ties this deeply personal account to the more recent Black Lives Matter protests, illustrating the power of hate and what it can do to human beings. When his sister and brother-in-law participate in the local BLM demonstration, it leads to frightening intimidation tactics from the Trump supporting locals. This gets worse when the word gets out that Siev has captured two white power members on camera. The family begins to receive hateful letters, phone calls, and trucks following them at night. Residents in their small conservative town terrorize the family for speaking out and for making a movie.
The story goes all the way from decades-old family history to the relief felt days after election night when Biden was finally declared the winner, all the way up to the verbal abuse from customers who didn’t like being required to wear masks inside the family’s restaurant. A lot is covered here, but the film ended with me wanting to know even more about the future trajectory of their story.
“Bad Axe” is a deeply personal story and film, offering an intimate look inside one family’s quest of living the American dream. This quintessential slice of life documentary is a time capsule that captures the climate of and life in the United States in 2020.