At the sad, lonely centre of Jack Pettibone Riccobono’s The Seventh Fire is loss – loss of family, loss of identity, culture and language, loss of will, and, ultimately, loss of freedom.
Life in Pine Point Village of White Earth, a remote Minnesotan reservation, isn’t easy. Boredom and a lack of opportunity takes a told on the population. Charismatic but troubled Rob “Two Thunderbirds” Brown has been in and out of prison for much of his life, and you get the sense that that is probably not an uncommon reality here. After pleading guilty to a recent crime, Rob is set to return to the big house but has been granted a weeklong furlong. He spends that time with his pregnant girlfriend, with his drug dealing protege Kevin, and hanging out with his friends who throw a big party in his honour. Following Kevin for a bit, we see his father trying to install a sense of history and tradition to his mostly uninterested son, and Kevin tries to teach dad some of today’s traditions, such as how to send text messages. Dad reveals he’d had enough of Kevin’s lifestyle and showed him some tough love by kicking him out of the house after Kevin stole some of his prescription pills. Again, you get the sense that all of this is a familiar tale in these parts. Kevin struggles between wanting to do what is right – stop using and dealing drugs, and find legit work – and living the life of a thug, which probably seems pretty damn glamourous.
The town seems to welcome the camera with open arms, or at least doesn’t attempt to shy away from it. The kids do the things that kids everywhere do, which they’ll probably regret once this gets a wide release, but it doesn’t feel like exploitation – the camera is only there to witness, not to judge. With its deliberate pacing and subtle revelations, it doesn’t take long to understand why Terrence Malick took to this project as Presenter. Plodding from scene to scene, the Seventh Fire at time feels like a gritty real life version of Richard Linklater’s beautiful feature length montage Slacker. We pick out tiny details of everyday life from Rob’s friends and family, careful to never overstay our welcome as a bigger picture forms in front of us.
Much like real life, the documentary is mostly uneventful with a few profound moments sprinkled in to give it flavour, although in retrospect those less exciting moments are filled with fine details that might have been missed if you weren’t looking close enough. When we’re first introduced to Rob he shows off his gang tattoos but in the final scene he adamantly denies to any gang affiliation whatsoever. Two sides of his personality on display. While revealing to us his drug manufacturing methods, Rob sings along to the radio. The lyrics are “if I could fly away”. On the surface it don’t mean much but in retrospect that taps into the very essence of who Rob is: a (thunder)bird who doesn’t like his cage – or the house that his cage is in for that matter – but who, for whatever reason, has never flown away. Anyway, expert work by the filmmakers for rewarding the audience for paying attention to the minutia.
Rob’s GF comments that some men are made to go to jail, that that is where Rob desires to be. Ken calls Rob an OG, saying he keeps it real all the time. It is accepted that Rob is a hard ass who doesn’t give a shit about anything. This is universally accepted as truth, at least until we see Rob on the morning of his incarceration. On the verge of tears, Rob is aware of what his fate is and he is so fed up and frustrated from not being able to change anything. Prison is agony for him, yet those closest to him would never believe it if you told them that. Rob is shown to be an absentee father – and will definitely be one, given that he’ll be in jail when his son is born – and yet he seems happiest when he’s running and playing in the park with the kids. If only Kevin had seen more of this side of Rob.
There is a scene where a couple of young children, maybe 5 or 6, discuss religion. One kid claims to be a Christian because when she dies she can go to heaven. The boy tells her that she can’t be an Indian and a Christian at the same time, but she doesn’t care, she’ll give up being an Indian if she has to. Everywhere their tradition is slowly eroding away.
We return to Rob, now behind bars. He’s been clean and sober for a few months. He says this is part of the cycle of his life – he gets out and boozes up and goes on drug binges. His mind gets cloudy. He becomes someone else. He goes back to prison, and with no access to drugs the clarity returns. He does a bit of writing. He’s working on a novel called Breaking Tradition. He talks about the tradition of drinking and gambling have replaced whatever was there before in their culture. He says communication has been lost, and he’s absolutely right. He explains how his namesake, the thunderbird, would fly ahead of the group to warn the others of thunderstorms in order to keep the flock safe. But there’s no warning, at least not verbally. That’s part of what’s happened here, with the death of communication. Rob is just a big kid stuck in a tough man’s body, he keeps that image up because that’s what is expected of him. He has a poet’s heart. He’s loves to read and write, but we don’t know if his friends know this. This documentary might not do anything to help Native Americans in general or the citizens of White Earth specifically, but we can hope that, at seeing such a promising young man fall to his demons, that his friends and family can adjust their paths and hopefully avoid the same fate.