The Seventh Fire, the debut documentary from Jack Pettibone Riccobono, is a stylistically ambitious portrait of life lived on the American fringe. His subjects are two Ojibway men living on the White Earth Indian Reservation in Minnesota, both of them caught by the combined forces of drug addiction and the criminal justice system. Gang leader Rob is on his way back to prison. His teen protege, Kevin, makes sporadic efforts to avoid following in his footsteps. Their stories, loosely told but impressively framed, drift slowly toward an uncertain conclusion.
The film has been praised for its gestures toward Terrence Malick, who also served as its executive producer. It’s visually striking, to be sure, but this aesthetic pursuit may be the cause of the Riccobono’s ultimately narrow and deeply unsatisfying portrayal of the community he chose to document.
The film’s title is a reference to an Ojibway legend about the seven generations of their people, which roughly corresponds to their history since first contact with white colonizers. The last of these is the “Seventh Fire,” which will bring about both a bold new future and a renewed interest in traditional culture. This particular legend will sound familiar to those who attended Documentary Fortnight at the Museum of Modern Art, which closed with the world premiere of INAATE/SE/ (review here). That film, a stunning feature debut by Ojibway filmmakers Adam and Zack Khalil, explored this prophecy with a wide variety of cinematic styles and a host of distinct perspectives. The Seventh Fire, on the other hand, leans hard on images of drug abuse and alcohol addiction. The Malickian use of threatening thunderstorms and other environmental imagery only cements this narrow reading, as if the hopelessness were some sort of natural law. It’s as frustrating as it is viscerally affecting.
Yet The Seventh Fire is also a wonderful opportunity to look at other cinematic representations of this same subject, one which has been seized by New York City’s Metrograph cinema. Alongside the release of Riccobono’s film is a retrospective entitled “Native to America,” a showcase of both fiction and nonfiction films that emphasize the struggle of indigenous people in the United States. Three in particular are perfect foils for The Seventh Fire, works that emphasize the internal diversity of aboriginal communities and the necessity for collective action both in their liberation and their representation. And, by a strange coincidence, they were all released within a year of each other.
Alanis Obomsawin’s Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance came last, debuting in 1993. The film is a landmark, something like a Canadian Harlan County, USA. It chronicles the Oka Crisis of 1990, a land dispute with tremendous implications. The Mohawk community of Kanehsatake resisted a plan to expand a golf course into an area that had been used by the aboriginal community for centuries, including as a burial ground. The resulting occupation led to a standoff between armed aboriginal activists and the Canadian Army that lasted more than two months.
There’s a lot to praise about Obomsawin’s work, including the remarkable amount of footage taken from inside an extremely perilous situation, one made even more difficult by the frequent refusal of the Army to cooperate with journalists. But perhaps the central achievement lies in the way she presents the community of Kanehsatake, including both those native to the area and those who traveled across the continent to help them fight for their land. Though her own narration is a major part of how she shapes the story, she also lifts up many individual voices. She is especially interested in the role of the local women, a refreshing contrast to Riccobono’s near-exclusive interest in women as bearers of children. Obomsawin uses the vocal diversity of her subjects to thwart the narrow impression desired by the authorities, namely that this was primarily a case of armed, masked warriors resisting the rightful rule of law.
Conflict between activists and law enforcement is also the subject of Incident at Oglala, which premiered in 1992. Directed by Michael Apted and narrated by Robert Redford, much of the film’s stylistic ambition is in the direction of The Thin Blue Line. The subject is the death of two FBI agents on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in 1975. Much of the eventual legal case has to do with conflicting accounts, questions of ballistics and a red vehicle of uncertain make. Yet despite the best efforts of cinematographer Maryse Alberti, the related reenactment segments don’t have that Errol Morris/Philip Glass magic.
However, Incident at Oglala does absolutely nail one crucial element. The FBI would like this event to be remembered as an act of terrorism by the American Indian Movement, full stop. Apted, however, dives deep into the social climate of Pine Ridge in the mid-1970s, when the reservation was run by the bullish Dick Wilson and his GOON (Guardians of the Oglala Nation) squads. He cooperated with the government at the expense of those who he represented, profiting off of federal funds and suppressing objections from the community’s traditionalist faction. Murder, was a regular feature of life in those years. Many who lost loved ones are featured in the film, recalling the underreported stories of this violent time. These personal narratives, when combined with some unbelievable archival footage of Wilson himself, underline the political fractures within the Native American community and resist the narrowing brush of the national media.
Of course, The Seventh Fire is not about the clash between activists and the FBI, but rather the much more mundane back-and-forth between gang members and the lower rungs of the criminal justice system. In this way it has a bit more in common with Jean-Pierre Gorin’s My Crasy Life, also released in 1992. Though it focuses on a very different community, that of Samoan gang members living in Los Angeles, much of the milieu is the same. Gorin’s subjects also spend much of their time hanging out drinking, occasionally causing trouble that lands them in prison.
Yet Gorin and Riccobono could not have more disparate approaches to representation. The more immediate distinction is all My Crasy Life’s recurring sequences of the young Samoans finding their shaky calling as a hip hop group, a heart-warming thread that both dates the film and lends it a sense of hope. Much deeper than that, however, is the way that Gorin encourages dialog within the Samoan community. He starts with a Samoan cop, who is caught between his concern for saving his community and the cynical institutional racism of the LAPD, here represented by a scripted monologue from his squad car computer. This diversity is a priority, not simply to check the boxes of representation, but also to add complexity to the choices made by the varied members of this community.
Gorin also foregrounds conversations between gang members. Rather than interview them himself, he films them interviewing each other. The subjects range from family history to codes of honor and violence. There’s not enough time to fully explore these revelations here, but the point is that they create a polyphonic discourse for a group of people who are so infrequently given a place to speak. This is not to say that Gorin isn’t also interested in their images, like Riccobono is interested in the images of Rob and Kevin. But what Gorin understands is that that image alone is not enough to fully articulate the lives of those members of society who have been long misrepresented by a colonial eye. Presenting a monochromatic view of aboriginal youth on the wrong side of the law, however well intentioned, does nothing to alter the similarly monochromatic perception that has forever dominated American culture.
And so it is a genuinely frustrating juxtaposition, the disappointment of The Seventh Fire adjacent to much more complex and polyphonic works from more than two decades ago. Yet Riccobono’s work isn’t necessarily representative. INAATE/SE/ is certainly proof of that, and perhaps it will receive a theatrical release some day as well. In the meantime, the programming of indigenous cinema at Metrograph and MoMA and Anthology Film Archives in recent months, is a qualified but still encouraging development.
The Seventh Fire and Native to America both run from July 22nd to 28th at Metrograph in New York City.