The Evolution of Our American Dream: A Conversation with David Siev
INTERVIEW WITH DAVID SIEV BY RIVA HAN
This piece was published in the 33rd volume of the Asian American Policy Review. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
The basis of [my documentary, BAD AXE] is my family—we’re Cambodian-Mexican-American. We live in this rural white community, and it’s us trying to keep our family restaurant alive and the American Dream alive during one of the most uncertain times in history amidst a pandemic, a racial reckoning, and everything else going on in our country in 2020. So it becomes a story that explores the question: how do you keep the American Dream alive today when it’s being challenged now more than ever?
AAPR: To start off, we would love for you to tell us about the film and your inspiration for making it.
SIEV: My name is David Siev and I’m a filmmaker. Most recently, I directed my directorial debut documentary feature called BAD AXE. BAD AXE is a very personal story. It all started when I moved from New York to my rural hometown of Bad Axe, Michigan during the pandemic to be with family. Like so many young adults did, we migrated back home to the nest.
For me, BAD AXE is a film that is about family. It’s about the American Dream, but it’s also about the American identity and what it means to be American.
The basis of the film is my family—we’re Cambodian-Mexican-American. We live in this rural white community, and it’s us trying to keep our family restaurant alive and the American Dream alive during one of the most uncertain times in history amidst a pandemic, a racial reckoning, and everything else going on in our country in 2020. So it becomes a story that explores the question: how do you keep the American Dream alive today when it’s being challenged now more than ever?
AAPR: You’ve spoken in previous interviews about the evolution of the American Dream, and how for your parents’ generation, the dream was about survival—keeping food on the table and sending their kids to school. Compared to how for our generation, the Dream still entails the element of financial stability, but also this other element of having a voice and being viewed as just as American as anyone else.[i] How did you come to understand the evolution of your American Dream? And how do you envision the future of the American Dream for the next generation?
SIEV: Making this film was so transformative for every individual in our family, including myself. So much of this film is about my family trying to find our place in America and trying to find and use our voice.
For me, that realization became much more clear after the film had come out and we realized that sharing our story truly did matter. It’s something we truly hoped for with this film—that people could see our perspective, but there’s no guarantee of that. So once the film was able to find an audience in this country and people began to tell us how thankful they were that we shared our experience, and they didn’t know that this was an experience that even existed in their own communities, that’s when I really began to realize that this film has so much to give in giving myself a voice and my family a voice.
In the film, we’re fighting to have that voice, and we’re not sure if it’s making the impact that we would like it to make. It was when the film came out that we realized that there is that true impact there, that our voices are being heard—and not just by people who agree with us but people everywhere—who don’t see eye to eye with us, who don’t agree with us politically, who come from different backgrounds. That’s what the point of having a voice is—for your experiences to matter and to resonate with other people who might not necessarily have heard you in the first place.
When we talk about the next generation to come, we just want that to keep getting better. I always say in a world for my nieces, I hope it’s something that they’re not fighting as much for when they’re my age. I hope it’s something that just becomes ingrained in American society, in who they are and the young women they will be, that their voices matter just as anyone else’s.
AAPR: You’ve previously touched on this note of cross cultural intersectionality,[ii] and I think that’s especially powerful given the fragmentation of political discourse in recent years as you’ve noted. The film is about your family in the context of the BLM protests and this global pandemic, and it’s about unity, harmony and contextualizing your story in the American story. How do you think of your identity and this concept of cross cultural intersectionality, and how has that changed over the years?[iii]
SIEV: Finding my own place and identity of how I feel as an American is something that has been a very long journey and one that I am still on. Growing up, you always know that you’re different and that you simply look and think differently than others in your community. And you really try to hide a lot of that part about yourself. So much of what my parents did is that they tried to blend in. And for myself, growing up as a little brown boy in Bad Axe, Michigan, I tried to do the same thing as well.
It wasn’t until I moved away from Bad Axe and went to school at the University of Michigan where I began to meet other people like me, other people who had similar experiences and who were also grappling with their own identity of being American. Having that perspective of moving away began to allow me to ask questions about myself and my place in my community, and that’s a journey that I’m still on.
With the making of BAD AXE and everything going on in 2020, where you see our family decide to use our voice for the first time, specifically my siblings and I, you see the consequences that come along with that—people telling you to go back to Cambodia, to go back to China, people telling you they’re no longer going to support your family business anymore because you support the Black Lives Matter movement, because you think differently than them.
You begin to be put into this other box and being called “other,” and that’s a box that I’ve grappled with for so long to step outside of. My whole family has grappled with that. Being in that box—it makes you feel less American. With this film, it was like, we’re going to show that our experiences aren’t just limited to being in this box of being “other.” Rather, everything that we went through throughout this year of 2020 was what so many Americans went through during that time—not just AAPI families, not just multicultural families, but families everywhere. This is an experience we all went through together as a country. Therefore, when our family is speaking about our experiences, that needs to be included when we talk about what the American experience is. This film has allowed me and my family in our own ways to cement ourselves in our identity and where we fit not only in our community of Bad Axe but also our country.
AAPR: One of the many admirable aspects of the film is the fact that it’s the result of long conversations with your family and it shows the trust that your family had in you, to allow you to keep filming in tense moments.[iv] What was your experience like with you and your family in having those conversations and grappling with some of the tense emotions that came up during the film? How did you cultivate that trust with your family?
SIEV: This film was made through our entire family and the difficult conversations we had to have with one another both on and off screen. When I started editing this film, I remember being in a very angry place, with everything our country was going through. I was mad about how we were dealing with the pandemic, something that shouldn’t have been political but was. I was angry about the BLM movement, how something that is supposed to be about supporting another marginalized community and a beautiful moment was also being politicized in a way that it shouldn’t have been. I brought a lot of that anger and frustration into early edits, losing grasp of why I was even making this film in the first place, which at the end of the day was to share my family’s story of our American Dream.
But it started to stray away from that, to become more about me trying to point out everything that was going wrong with our country. It was through a lot of conversations with my family, and them asking me why are you making this film in the first place, I realized that I was moving away from my original purpose. I was more so telling how our family was feeling and why we felt the way we felt and why everyone else was wrong versus just showing our experience and allowing audience members to be in our shoes and experience Bad Axe through our lens. It was through those difficult conversations where I came to that revelation: that if I wanted to create real change and real dialogue, it had to come from a place where people could connect with us as fellow humans.
Having said that, you see how reserved my parents are about the film within the film itself. My dad says, “you have to rewrite your love letter,” and my mom is telling me, “you don’t live here anymore,” and they’re both very much right in those circumstances. Because I get to go back to New York and live my life, and my family are the ones who have to put up with the consequences.
It’s the same with me trying to say, “it’s a love letter to Bad Axe” to my dad. I don’t think at the time I truly believed it when I said that. It was more of a knee-jerk reaction to being scolded by your parent and trying to justify your actions. I had to come back to this realization that it was a love letter to Bad Axe because when you love something, you love it unconditionally. I love Bad Axe unconditionally, and I’ll never stop fighting for it to get better. That took a lot of learning from these tough conversations I was having with my family.
What my parents learned from that was that you can’t stop fighting for something you believe in; in fact, that’s what they always taught us growing up, to stand up and do the right thing. At this moment when they were having reservations about the making of the film and whether or not we should speak up, by the time they were able to see the final cut, they realized that the story is so important, and now they’re the most supportive people behind it. They’ve gone on their own journey as well, too, of realizing the importance of using their voice. It was so transformative for all of us. We were all learning from each other throughout this difficult process of making this film and having tough conversations with one another. That’s something we’re all grateful for, to have gone on the journey together.
There is a greater message with this film. It’s a love letter to the community of Bad Axe. It’s also a love letter to family and community. If you can see that as different as our family is and how much we don’t agree with each other, we just want what’s best for us all at the end of the day. We still come together—and we don’t just find a way to cohabitate and be under the same roof—we find a way to thrive and excel as a family.
I hope there’s a bigger message there with what I hope is in the future for Bad Axe. We might not ever agree with one another politically, but can we have an understanding for one another’s experiences, and not just cohabitate but thrive together as a community to make Bad Axe a better place? The love letter concept is so complicated, but that’s the hope. You never stop fighting for anything you believe in, and Bad Axe is no exception.
AAPR: The courage that you and your family had in getting to that understanding shines through in the film. You’ve spoken about how in the weeks leading up to your world premiere at SXSW, this was a work of perseverance and passion for you: every sales agent and major distributor passed on the film, and you had $101.99 in your bank account.[v] If a deal didn’t happen, you were preparing yourself for a reality where you would have to move back to Bad Axe and work at the restaurant again to get back on your feet. And it wasn’t until IFC made an offer that you realized you were able to have the film take off.[vi] I’d love to hear more about how you were able to overcome any fears you might have had, of failure or pushback, or letting down your family? What advice would you have for people who are still navigating how to share their stories or find their voice?
SIEV: By the time we premiered at SXSW, there were a lot of personal fears and anxiety with my own financial situation. You pour everything into something that is so personal, and at the end of the day, you might not ever see the fruits of your labor pay off. That was really terrifying. But after that premiere, and seeing how people connected with our story and something that was so personal to me, it was almost like a lot of that anxiety and those fears lifted, and I was okay with the fact that if I had to get a job at a restaurant or move back home to get myself back on my feet, that’s just what I would have to do, because I knew I made something I was proud of and I poured every ounce of my soul into. Everything else faded into the background.
When IFC was in the room that day, and they ended up making an offer the next week and the sale went through quicker than any other sale my agent said he’s ever worked on, it was like this new breath of life—not because I had financial security but because there’s going to be more of these screenings and more conversations that would happen. From there, it just snowballed. We won a couple of awards at SXSW, then festivals started reaching out, and before you know it you’ve done over thirty festival screenings, and at each of theses screenings, it’s these powerful conversations that happen afterwards, where people are coming up to you and telling you they feel changed and inspired and impacted for the better where they want to spread that message and pass it on. I think that’s why the film has had the momentum it has—not because we have big marketing dollars or any of that—but because people have truly resonated with our story and they feel so compelled to share it with ten of their friends. It’s become bigger than any of us could have ever imagined.
My point in saying this is that my advice to young filmmakers, which I know sounds cliche, is that when you’re deciding to pick up a camera and make your first film, make sure you do it with no other motivation other than that it’s a story that is so close and important to your heart that you know you cannot sleep at the end of the day unless you share that story.
Scorsese said that the most personal is the most creative, and I think there’s so much truth behind that. If you make something so personal and so close to your heart, it can’t help but to find a way of connecting with other people. With all the awards talks now and making the Oscars shortlist, it’s just knowing that this very personal story of my family has reached a bigger platform, many more people are going to discover our story, many more conversations about all the themes the film raises are going to take place. That’s what’s been so powerful to think about for me is how many conversations this film is inspiring around the US, and it’s thanks to the people who have helped elevate it and allowed us to reach this point. It’s like having a giant megaphone—the platform only gets that much larger and so many people will discover your film now.
AAPR: You’ve spoken about representation and having this platform, your hope is that in the future, other underrepresented and marginalized stories like yours will not just be limited to smaller, more passionate distributors like IFC but be seen by distributors like Netflix and HBO.[vii] How do you think we’re going to reach that goal? Do you think there needs to be a radical transformation in the film industry or what do you think is the way forward?
SIEV: Change happens slowly, but I think this change is happening in the industry, though we always want change to happen much quicker. I think that ten years ago, even a film like BAD AXE probably wouldn’t have had the momentum it’s had. I recognize that I stand on the shoulders of so many other Asian filmmakers before me that helped pave the way for a film like BAD AXE to reach the audience it has. It makes me really optimistic for the future, and seeing our film listed on the shortlist of all the major studios makes me really proud. I hope it shakes those executives up there and tells them, hey listen, personal stories matter. Stories like my family’s matter. Representation matters.
I think it’s going to make more filmmakers like myself to continue breaking through and sharing their stories. Hopefully that creates a shift in the industry. There needs to be more representation on all levels, but especially at those who are the gatekeepers. The fact that I don’t think I met with a single AAPI sales agent is crazy to me. The people who are running these major studios are basically all older white people. Can we imagine what the industry would look like if the gatekeepers and the people who made those decisions were BIPOC individuals or people from marginalized communities? I think the industry would be completely different.
Right now, we’re at a point where we’re working for people in marginalized communities to be able to reach a position where they are making real change and deciding what films get bought and made. We still have a ways to go to uplift people to be in those positions, but I am optimistic one day there will be a change. I hope BAD AXE is proof that people do care and there is an appetite for these stories.
AAPR: I think BAD AXE certainly is that proof. To close us out, do you have any final thoughts you’d like to share with our readership?
SIEV: I hope that my family’s story inspires many others to share their personal stories because if we don’t share our stories, who’s going to? They could end up in the wrong hands or not be told at all, so I hope it inspires people to tell their personal stories because they truly matter.
DAVID SIEV is a first-generation Cambodian-Mexican-American filmmaker born and raised in the Midwest. Before directing BAD AXE, his SXSW award-winning feature debut based on his family’s restaurant in rural Michigan, David spent his early career learning guerilla filmmaking under director Jeff Tremaine. This experience prepared David to make his directorial debut with his award-winning narrative short, YEAR ZERO, based on his father’s experience of escaping Cambodia. David’s work on BAD AXE has been celebrated with numerous accolades, including the Critic’s Choice Award for Best First Feature Documentary. David now lives in NYC, focusing on developing narrative and documentary projects.
RIVA HAN is a JD/MPP Candidate at Harvard Law School and Harvard Kennedy School and serves as Co-Editor-in-Chief for the Asian American Policy Review. Born and raised in southern California, Riva graduated in 2018 from the University of Rochester, where she studied political science and economics. After college, she represented indigent asylum seekers through pro bono initiatives and worked alongside a litigation investment team that funded complex litigation. After graduate school, Riva plans to fight corporate misconduct through plaintiff-side litigation and advance equitable access to education through policy advocacy.
1 David Siev, “It Was a Hotbed of Hate. Then It Birthed My American Dream.,” The Daily Beast, November 17, 2022, sec. entertainment, https://www.thedailybeast.com/bad-axe-documentary-about-a-familys-american-dream-is-headed-for-academy-awards.
2 BAD AXE – Q&A | Eva Longoria, Daniel Dae Kim, David and Rachel Siev | Film Independent Presents, 2022, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QG-dnf7oRMw.
3 BAD AXE – Q&A.
4 BAD AXE | In Conversation w/ Yung Chang, 2022, https://vimeo.com/779130532.
5 Siev, “It Was a Hotbed of Hate.”
7 David Siev, “BAD AXE made The Academy shortlist for Documentary Feature!!” Instagram, December 23, 2022, https://www.instagram.com/p/CmcwArNPuso/.