Canadian audiences are fortunate to have passionate pioneers like Alanis Obomsawin championing the stories of Indigenous communities through documentary film, but the lives of First Nations persons rarely receive fair exposure in films south of the border. The few images that Canadians see of Indigenous communities in the USA are often problematic Hollywood clichés, stereotypes, and villainous caricatures in generic westerns. The new documentary The Seventh Fire, however, gives a sobering and necessary portrait of drugs, crime, and redemption on an Ojibway reservation in Minnesota. The film is tough and unflinching in its account of Rob Brown, a 31-year-old gang leader, and his 17-year-old protégé, Kevin. Alternatively stark, troubling, and beautiful, The Seventh Fire is a searing film experience.
POV recently had the opportunity to speak with The Seventh Fire director Jack Pettibone Riccobono about his film ahead of its screening in Toronto at TIFF Bell Lightbox. Chatting with the director by phone, POV and Riccobono discussed the elements of access and objectivity that make the film so gripping, the film’s compelling visual style, and the varying awareness of First Nations issues in Canada and the USA.
POV: Pat Mullen
JPR: Jack Pettibone Riccobono
POV: You previously looked at the Ojibway in the short film The Sacred Food. The Seventh Fire offers a much different portrait of the community than we see in the short film. What made you return?
JPR: When I made The Sacred Food, I first learned about the seven fires prophecy, which is a part of the Ojibway oral tradition. It’s a prophecy they received that brought them from the northeast to the upper mid-west of the US and then Canada. About two years after The Sacred Food, my producing partner read about this phenomenon of gang culture migrating from inner cities and prisons to remote Native communities all throughout the US and Canada. We started to look into it and there were very few journalistic pieces or studies on it, so it was very hard to get any information. Eventually, I said, “Let me go back,” and I returned to the community where I made The Sacred Food to see if this problem was happening there and if people would talk to me about it. That led to the first research trip of the shoot, which was in October 2010.
POV: Rob’s poetry works very well with the theme of storytelling and oral tradition. Did you know he was a poet before you met him, or did that come out during the shoot?
JPR: He was a self-taught writer, and he got into it when he was in the prison system. He was working on a novel and had written poetry before we met. When he was sentenced to go back to prison for a fifth time, which was about halfway through the production of The Seventh Fire, I asked him to keep a journal on his observations and experiences. At that time, we didn’t know what kind of access we’d have to Rob moving forward. He sent written pages in the mail, from his journal, which led us to feature one of his poems in the film. He actually has book of poetry called White Earth Stories that is now coming out that includes some stills from the film.
POV: That’s great. That’s really encouraging.
JPR: We’re really excited. It answered the question of what you do with all these materials that are created in the process of production. For Rob, it was always a dream to have his work published.
POV: You shot in two very different, but probably difficult, locations: the community and the prison. Was there one that took longer to access the subjects and gain trust?
JPR: Both shooting on the reservation and shooting within the Minnesota prison system, it was challenging to gain access to both places, so it took a lot of patience and perseverance. With the reservation, I had already made some connections with the community in making my short film. Rob has real stature within that community, too, so he was able to provide introductions to certain people and explain what we were trying to do with the project. When it came to the prison system, that was really a process of building trust with the department of corrections over many years. They took a chance on us. We’re the first independent film crew to receive access to shoot within the Minnesota prison system, and I think a lot of that had to do with them understanding our intentions. We weren’t out to demonise their people or their system. We just wanted to show Rob’s experience of what it was like to be behind bars and because that institution was an important stage in his life, and is for many Native men, we wanted that to be a part of the story.
POV: And it’s very objective in its depiction of the prison and the behavior that brings Rob to prison.
POV: Some of the stuff that Rob gets into is pretty intense, particularly when he and a woman from the reservation are doing coke while her baby sits on the table. Why was it important not to intervene, in either the shooting or editing, and let the action play out?
JPR: It’s one of those complicated pairings that you have to deal with as a documentary filmmaker. For me, I always try to go into the field with objectivity, honesty, and transparency. I think that film can be most powerful in the way that it transports audiences to places they possibly aren’t going to visit and it introduces them to people they might not meet themselves. But, hopefully, it can foster greater understanding and empathy by facilitating that contact. As a human being, you might be filming in certain places that might be tough and you might want to intervene, but my feeling was that if we crossed certain lines, that would violate the trust and the reason that we were there in the first place.
POV: Right. And how did they react to seeing that? Did the documentary make them aware of their addiction during the shoot?
JPR: There were many different reactions. We showed the film to Rob’s girlfriend Christine, who you see and who has his baby throughout the course of the film, and to Rob and Kevin. I think for Rob, it was very intense for him to see these scenes since they included some of the darkest moments from his life. I know it was very hard for him to watch certain parts of it, but he’s now sober and being trained as a drug treatment counsellor, so I think in some ways, seeing the film had an impact on his choices since being released from prison. He’s walking a very different path right now.
POV: It’s nice to see the full arc of Rob’s journey. When you see a moment as dark as that one, it makes the ending more optimistic when you see how far he’s come.
JPR: Mmm-hmm. Right.
POV: The film doesn’t hold anything back, but it also avoids stereotypes. Often in older films and mass media, we see images of the “drunken Indian.” How did you avoid those clichés while also showing the alcoholism and substance abuse that happens on the reserve?
JPR: We always thought of our subjects as collaborators in the process. Rob was very intuitive about the filmmaking process. We actually gave cameras to our subjects and some of the footage they shot made it into the final film. That’s one way we tried to avoid stereotypes. And not just avoid them, but to acknowledge and perhaps deflate some of them. Rob makes a joke in the film about how Europeans love Indians—
POV: That’s true. [Laughs.] I remember that scene now.
JPR: He’s pointing to this stereotypical notion of Native American culture. Many Europeans and North Americans still have very little exposure to contemporary Native life. There are definitely a lot of stereotypes alive and well that are still fostered by the Hollywood industry. Part of our motivation to make the film was to bring this community out and hopefully expose people to what’s going on in Native American communities today because these are not “Native American issues.” These are issues for all of us. Certainly in Canada, I think, people are more aware of First Nations issues, but in America, I think there’s still a struggle to get those concerns onto the radar.
POV: That’s one thing that I actually wanted to ask you. At one point in the film, we hear stories of the elders’ experience with Residential Schools and it comes out in Rob’s history with his parents. In Canada, we have a very fraught history with this chapter of our past and we’ve only begun to acknowledge it and make amends. Has the American government done much to acknowledge Residential Schools or make repairs?
POV: Because I’ll admit that I hadn’t even heard of America’s history with Residential Schools outside of this film. Canada’s, yes, but…
JPR: Canada’s much further ahead. I think it was only last year that the official apology was made by the Canadian government [the Truth and Reconciliation Commission] for the official policies of the boarding school era and I hope we see that from the American government also, but I think we have a long way to go before that happens. With that being said, we received the special honour to screen the film at the White House in March.
JPR: That shows that President Obama, at least, has taken an interest in Native American affairs and in criminal justice reform, so we were very honored to present the film and our hopeful that we can raise awareness and get the attention of key policy makers to try to move the conversation forward. One statistic I always find amazing is that President Obama was the first sitting President to visit a federal prison and only the third sitting President to visit a Native American reservation—
POV: I came across that during my research for the film and was shocked.
JPR: I think that’s very telling.
POV: Say with Kevin in the film, how is the younger generation carrying this history with them? Kevin seems to be in a much better place than Rob is when we see them in the film, but he still has his demons.
JPR: It’s hard to say. Part of what we wanted to draw out in the film was the intergeneration nature of some of these issues and how cycles can repeat themselves. Rob is in his mid-thirties in the film and when we meet Kevin, he’s 17. We see Rob differently because through Kevin’s eyes, you see how Rob is this epic figure and a potentially negative influence. Rob talks about how he had been a very bad influence in a part of this cycle. For Kevin’s generation, it’s not clear yet what the future holds. Kevin is now 21 years old, but he’s still young and it’s most challenging to reaching teens and young adults. They’re the ones who are most vulnerable to drugs, gangs and violence, and are introduced into the criminal justice system that can be a revolving door that might not let them out for a very long time. I don’t think I can quite say how they’re dealing with it.
POV: That’s fair.
JPR: I think we’ll have to see how things go.
POV: One thing that strikes me about both Kevin’s story and Rob’s story is that, aesthetically, the film is very bleak, but also quite beautiful. How did you find the right look for the film?
JPR: When we began the project, I knew that I wanted the film to be immersive, cinematic, and character driven to take the audience on an emotional journey. We worked with a colourist to create the look of the film in post-production and we wanted to create a very specific type of look that would help tell the story. The colour evolves throughout the film. In particular, there’s a divide when Rob enters prison: the bleak, clean prison facility is a stark contrast to the reservation, which has a more sepia tone.
POV: Yeah, like the prison is sterile and the reservation has a very earthy look.
JPR: We tried to use the landscape as a character in the film because the land is very important to Native American people and is part of what makes the story so surreal. I think most people associate gang culture with inner city persons, and here we are in this beautiful natural landscape and there are pockets of hard-core gang culture that have taken hold.
POV: It definitely has an impact with the names of Natalie Portman and Terrence Malick as Executive Producers. How did they come aboard the project?
JPR: Chris Eyre actually came on board first. He signed on when we were only a quarter of a way into the production. We showed Chris a sample of footage. He’s an incredible filmmaker and a passionate Native activist, and so we knew that we wanted to get the material to him. He really responded to the intimacy of the footage, specifically to Rob and Kevin and to their stories, and that this was a story that hadn’t been told and need to get out there. It was about a year later and halfway through production that we were able to get a sample to Natalie Portman. I think, like a lot of Americans, she didn’t know much about this particular issue or community, but she is very thoughtful about how she can raise awareness about important issues. She’s been a tremendous supporter of the project.
It was through Natalie, who did two films with Mr. Malick, that we eventually approached Mr. Malick. He is from Oklahoma and has had a longstanding interest in Native affairs and Native stories, and I think Natalie also thought that he would respond to the filmmaking style, especially with how we incorporated the landscape. We first approached Mr. Malick with a sample and he wrote us a very nice letter of support. Then we returned with a rough cut and he agreed to sign on, which we were very excited about. All three of our Executive Producers watched the film in multiple cuts and gave lots of creative feedback, so they were involved throughout the creative process.
POV: It’s nice to see that the film can have such an impact and reach so many people.
JPR: I hope so. We think that Canadian audiences in particular could respond to the film. The Ojibway have a huge relation in Canada and in general our impression is that Canadians are much more aware of First Nations issues and have the Idle No More campaign, and energy around First Nations issues, so we hope that it will be part of the conversation.
The Seventh Fire screens in Toronto at TIFF Bell Lightbox from Monday, July 25 – Thursday, July 28.