There have been panel discussions organized around screenings of The Seventh Fire that wished to address the societal ills that plague the tiny indigenous community depicted in the film. However, any discussion about the film should center around the way the film uses its lyrical, pseudo-documentary style to establish its Native American subjects in the same contemporary cultural landscape as other segments of American life. In order for the film to be successful, it must find a balance between a sympathy for the people it portrays and the easy way in which Native Americans are easily exploited by the filmmaking process.
As it stands, the film is meant to draw attention to the various modern problems that have helped destroy familial and tribal structures. Jack Pettibone Riccobono, the non-indigenous director of The Seventh Fire, is successful at proclaiming the place of its subjects in mainstream American life in ways that even some Native American filmmakers are incapable of doing, but the film nearly fails at breaking the bonds of its negative portrayals to rise above the misery that serves as the basis for much of its aesthetics.
Rob Brown, an Ojibwa drug dealer and gang member on the White Earth reservation in northern Minnesota, spends most of the film drifting in and out of a drug and alcohol-fueled haze. As such, he serves as a symbol for the once-perceived urban problems of gang violence and drug addiction that have plagued many rural places across the United States, including Indian reservations. The film follows his life up to the moments that he is sent to prison. Touching on intergenerational themes seen in many other movies about indigenous subjects, the film also follows teenager Kevin Fineday, Jr., Rob’s fellow gang member and protege, whose goal in life is to become the reservation’s number one drug dealer. The film depicts Kevin and Rob at a crossroads in which they must take the opportunity to steer away from the cycle of drugs, violence, and poverty where the film dwells.
The faux-documentary’s artiness has the negative effect of turning real people into art objects
The Seventh Fire shows its subjects caught in a system that undermines and destroys the fabric of family and tribal life. As the film opens, one man remarks, “Let’s put it this way: With Rob there is always a new low.” Some of the intimate, uncomfortably close moments in the film are filtered through a style that recalls the impressionistic, ephemeral visuals of Terrence Malick, who serves as one of the producers of The Seventh Fire. As Rob falls to various low points in the film -snorting meth, drinking himself into oblivion, sitting in prison as his son is born- the real-life moments of his journey, documented and narrated loosely as a cinematic fever dream, take precedence over underlining the systemic poverty/gang/drug/incarceration web from which many reservation people struggle escaping. The faux-documentary’s artiness has the negative effect of turning real people into art objects.
Gang tattoos, rap music, the ubiquitous Scarface poster pinned to the wall of many young drug dealers, are all part of the film’s landscape and serve as the contemporary cultural codes that replace the symbols of traditional tribal culture. Representations of indigenous people have come a long way since the once-prevalent Western genre cast Indians as noble savages. The ways in which the real-life dismal landscape of the film is shown is an advancement over past stereotypical depictions simply because, despite its objectification, The Seventh Fire still shapes Rob, Kevin and others into sympathetic characters. However, it will be easy for some viewers to define Rob, Kevin, and many of the film’s subjects in negative terms due to the criminal activity filmed, and by the pitiful wallowing in various substances that the film’s camera is never afraid to show. This negative portrayal is balanced by the detached, observational manner in which the people of the film are shown; it is the minute observations of everyday life escaping the ambient tone of the film that humanize Rob and Kevin.
No film should be obligated to explicitly underline in a literal way the root causes of systemic issues that people face, but the fugue state manner in which the events and people of The Seventh Fire are depicted runs the risk of distancing real people and their very real tragedies from society outside of the reservation. A sort of “othering” of Rob and Kevin is achieved by the film’s loose-narrative, dreamy visual style. The reservation is depicted as an isolated, alien place. A drone shot of Pine Point from above shows its small size and rural isolation. Within its layout of desolate streets there seem to be no roads leading out of the reservation. The image itself resembles an existential nightmare. This viewpoint contributes to the alien-othering achieved by Riccobono.
Ricobono has created a film whose artistic roots can be traced not only to the dreaminess of Malick’s visual style, but also to the documentary-fictional blend of filmmaking styles used to great effect by Werner Herzog. Ricobono, who was a participant in Werner Herzog’s Rogue Film School, has appropriated that director’s tendency of using non-actors in dramatically structured moments. Bruno S. in Herzog’s Stroszek and the dwarf actors in his otherworldly Even Dwarfs Started Small come to mind. Stylistically, the film has much in common with Harmony Korine’s misunderstood, visually dynamic Gummo, a film that has also reshaped the lives of disadvantaged people into characters who occupy a rundown world that resembles an alien, apocalyptic, landscape.
Questions about exploitation arise when we consider that the film has been made by outsiders who view an economically disadvantaged, historically disenfranchised people through such a seemingly negative point of view. But like Herzog and Korine before him, Riccobono shows sympathy for the real life people whose life he shapes into narrative form. The Seventh Fire‘s negative depiction of Rob is redeemed by a dramatic arc that shows hope for his future.
Within the film’s theme about future generations of Ojibwa men breaking out of a cycle of drugs, gangs and poverty, the film reaches the sad conclusion that Rob must enter prison to understand the systemic, multigenerational web in which his people are caught. After wallowing in images that border on the kind of exploitation seen in the poverty porn pictures of Aaron Huey, the film ends with still images of a younger, healthier Rob wearing regalia and dancing at a powwow. The images are devastating when they are contrasted with the sad state in which Rob finds himself while incarcerated. In voice over, Rob talks about the Thunderbird, who flies head of his flock to warn others of an impending storm. With this ending, The Seventh Fire almost achieves a balance between the exploitation of Indians by outsiders.
–Scott Pewenofkit, Jr.