Review: ‘Bad Axe,’ starring Jaclyn Siev, Chun Siev, Rachel Siev, David Siev, Raquel Siev, Michelle Siev and Michael Meinhold

April 1, 2023

by Carla Hay

Jaclyn Siev (pictured at left) in “Bad Axe” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films)

“Bad Axe”

Directed by David Siev

Culture Representation: Taking place in 2020, in Bad Axe, Michigan, the documentary film “Bad Axe” features a group of Asian and white people (with a few African Americans) discussing the Siev family, a Cambodian-Mexican American clan that owns the Bad Axe casual restaurant Rachel’s.

Culture Clash: The family experiences several challenges during the beginning of COVID-19 pandemic, including COVID-19 restrictions, financial problems, political conflicts and bigotry toward non-white immigrants.

Culture Audience: “Bad Axe” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in stories about immigrant families and restaurant survival during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Chun Siev in “Bad Axe” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films)

“Bad Axe” is more than just a documentary about a family-owned restaurant trying to survive during the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s also an emotionally stirring and heartfelt story about immigration, dealing with bigotry, and the significance of family legacies. “Bad Axe” director David Siev says in the film that this documentary is also a “love letter” to his hometown of Bad Axe, Michigan, where this documentary was filmed. However, the story of his family resonates more in this film than a story about a city, because there aren’t many people outside of the family who are interviewed for this documentary.

“Bad Axe” had its world premiere at the 2022 SXSW Film Festival, where the movie won the Audience Award for Best Documentary Feature, as well as special jury recognition for Intimacy in Storytelling. “Bad Axe” also won the 2022 Critics Choice Documentary Award for Best First Documentary Feature. “Bad Axe” is an admirable feature-film directorial debut from Siev, who manages to weave together two different storylines (the COVID-19 storyline and the immigrant storyline) in a meaningful way. The merging of these two storylines isn’t always seamless (some of the film editing needed improving), but it’s never awkward or confusing. The “Bad Axe” documentary was filmed in the first several months of the pandemic, beginning when lockdowns in the U.S. started in March 2020. A few epilogue scenes were filmed in 2021.

The documentary begins David’s sister Jaclyn Siev reading an angry, anonymous letter from a customer of Rachel’s, the Bad Axe casual restaurant owned by David’s parents Chun Siev and Rachel Siev. Rachel’s is a restaurant that serves American and Asian food and can seat about 50 to 75 people indoors. Chun is a Cambodia immigrant who has been living in Michigan since the mid-1970s, when he, his siblings and their single mother relocated to the United States. Rachel is a Mexican American who met Chun through a Taekwondo class that she took where Chun was the instructor.

According to the 2020 U.S. census, Bad Axe is a city with a population of a little more than 3,000 people, and 95% are white. Most residents of Bad Axe have household incomes that would classify them as working-class or poor. Located in Michigan’s Huron County, Bad Axe is a city whose population has been steadily declining since 1990, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Bad Axe was also a conflicted city in 2020, when it came to how the government should have handled certain COVID-19 policies, such as whether or not people should be required to wear masks, and which businesses needed to shut down during the quarantining lockdown period of the pandemic. Michigan was one of the U.S. states where COVID-19 policies sparked the most widespread protests and debates, often divided along political lines.

Supporters of then-U.S. president Donald Trump tended to be the most resistant to government safety policies for the pandemic. People who were against these policies argued that it violated their personal freedom of choice. All of these sociopolitical factors affected countless people, especially during the first two years of the pandemic. “Bad Axe” takes a very up-close and personal look at how it all affected this family’s small restaurant business.

The angry customer letter that Jaclyn reads on camera says, in part: “You are right that many of your customers are Trump supporters, but Bad Axe isn’t changing from traditional American values. My family and others will be changing our restaurant routine, and Rachel’s is no longer a choice. … You can return to Cambodia for opportunity.” The documentary circles back to this letter-reading scene after it shows the reason why this letter was sent in the first place.

As most people already know, the restaurant industry was among the hardest-hit during the lockdown period of the pandemic. Even though restaurants were considered essential businesses that could stay open during the lockdowns, most U.S. states and cities banned indoor sit-down meals at restaurants for several months. (The lifting of this ban depended on the local or state government that issued these regulations.) Most restaurants that stayed open durng these restrictions had to rely on take-out and delivery orders, as well as provide outdoor seating areas, if the restaurants were fortunate enough to have space for outdoor seating.

In “Bad Axe,” David (who lives in New York City) is shown coming back to Bad Axe during the pandemic lockdowns to spend time with his family. Jaclyn (the eldest child in the family) also took time off from her regular life to help out as much as she can in the restaurant. It’s mentioned that Jaclyn and her husband Michael “Mike” Meinhold live in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and their corporate day jobs allowed them to work from home during the pandemic lockdowns. They used this more flexible work schedule to go to Bad Axe and assist in operating the restaurant.

Meinhold says, “Bad Axe is a place where, if you grew up here, you really can’t wait to get out. It doesn’t have a whole lot of things to offer.” He adds, as if attempting not to appear too negative about Bad Axe: “It’s a nice place to raise a family.”

Also featured in the documentary are David and Rachel’s younger sisters Raquel Siev and Michelle Siev, who help out in the restaurant too. At the time the pandemic lockdowns happened, Raquel was about to graduate from the University of Michigan and wasn’t very enthusiastic about the idea of continuing to work at the restaurant after graduation. Michelle seems a little more committed to her restaurant duties, but she also can’t say for sure that she will take over the restaurant when her parents retire.

Family friend/restaurant manager Skyler Janssen is also seen being among the crucial staff who helped keep the restaurant open for business. She is a friendly and loyal employee who is treated almost like a member of the family. Janssen admits later in the documentary that if it weren’t for being employed at the restaurant, she probably wouldn’t have taken the time to get to know the Siev family, whose race and family history are different from hers.

These cultural differences in Bad Axe cause friction in the community when outspoken Jaclyn and mild-mannered Raquel get involved in the Black Lives Matter protests in Bad Axe and nearby cities, after the horrific murder of Goerge Floyd. Raquel’s boyfriend Austin Turmell also gets involved in the protests, and he has a personal reason for advocating for better race relations: He’s an African American whose adoptive parents Denise Turmell and Wayne Turmell are white. All of these family members are featured in the documentary.

During one of these protests, members of extreme white supremacy groups line up with guns as a way to intimidate the peaceful Black Lives Matter protesters. Things get heated as some of the protesters and the white supremacists yell insults at each other. Jaclyn is one of the people who gets caught up in these verbal conflicts.

People are filming this public gathering, which also makes the local news. And even though Jaclyn is wearing a face mask covering the lower part of her face, people in the community recognize her when videos of her at the protest are seen in mass media. The restaurant gets a backlash for these civil rights activities, and the backlash grows when people find out that David has started a crowdfunding campaign for the documentary.

But the conflicts that the Siev family faces aren’t just from external sources. The family had internal conflicts too. It would be easy to assume that a family would be united to help save the family’s restaurant under these circumstances. However, that was not the case with the Siev family.

“Bad Axe” shows that Jaclyn, who has a take-charge personality, often argued with her parents to be quarantined at home, out of concerns that they might get infected by COVID-19, due the parents being in the high-risk group of people over the age of 60. Chun and Rachel eventually agree to the quarantine. And there comes a point where Chun gets so discouraged by the sharp decline in business, he contemplates closing the restaurant permanently. It’s a decision that Jaclyn vehemently opposes.

There are some tearful arguments among family members, with Jaclyn openly saying that she feels the most pressure (as the eldest child) to keep the family business going. Part of her determination to keep the restaurant in business comes from the heartbreak that she and other family members experienced when Chun had a donut shop that failed years ago when his children were underage. Jaclyn tells anyone who’ll listen that she doesn’t want the same thing to happen to Rachel’s. In the documentary, she considers quitting her day job and taking over the restaurant full-time.

Chun says in the documentary that Jaclyn reminds him a lot of his mother. Jaclyn comments on Chun’s mother: “She’s the one who taught me what it means to sacrifice for your family. I just always grew up thinking, ‘If she could survive a genocide and come to this country, the least I can do is help my family run a business.”

Quarantining at home during the pandemic obviously caused Chun to reflect on his life. And that’s where the documentary’s second storyline comes in: Chun talks about his past in Cambodia (he experienced some horrific things) and what it was like to be a refugee immigrant in the United States. The American Dream is a constant theme in “Bad Axe.” And during the pandemic, that dream and so many others were destroyed for many people, often in unexpected ways.

Many directors who make documentaries about their families tend to make themselves (the directors) the stars of these documentaries. David doesn’t follow that usual stereotype. He is seen in some of the footage, and he’s also heard asking some of the interview questions. But he isn’t at the center of the documentary’s story.

Without question, Jaclyn and Chun are the stars of the “Bad Axe” documentary. Their disagreements have a lot to do with something that is obvious to viewers, but it takes a while for Jaclyn and Chun to figure out: This father and daughter, both stubborn and opinionated, have their biggest clashes with each other because their personalities are so much alike.

“Bad Axe” is a story of survival, not just financial but also emotional, during a deadly pandemic. It’s a story about a multiracial family learning more about how they can live in a mostly white community during a time of high racial tension. And most important of all: It’s a story about a family finding new ways to appreciate each other when times are tough and uncertain.

IFC Films released “Bad Axe” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on November 18, 2022.

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