‘The Seventh Fire’ Shows Gripping Reality of Native American Gang Life

Photo courtesy of: Film Movement.
Rob Brown (White Earth Ojibwe) in a scene from “The Seventh Fire”, executive produced by Terrence Malick and directed by Jack Pettibone Riccobono.

‘Really powerful and really painful’: depicting Native American gangs

Rob Brown (White Earth Ojibwe) is a former drug-using gang member from the small town of Pine Point on the White Earth Reservation in Minnesota. He has spent nearly half of his life incarcerated and is the key figure in a gripping documentary about Native American gang life called The Seventh Fire. Brown appears in the documentary along with then 17-year-old Kevin Fineday.

Rob Brown (left) and Kevin Fineday, Jr. in a scene from “The Seventh Fire”,  executive produced by Terrence Malick and directed by Jack Pettibone Riccobono, premiering July 22 at Metrograph. Photo courtesy of: Film Movement.

Rob Brown (left) and Kevin Fineday, Jr. in a scene from “The Seventh Fire”, executive produced by Terrence Malick and directed by Jack Pettibone Riccobono, premiering July 22 at Metrograph. Photo courtesy of: Film Movement.

 

The film has been shown internationally since it came out in February 2015 with the support of big-name executive producers / actor Natalie Portman (Star Wars) and directors Terrence Malick (Days of Heaven, Badlands) and Chris Eyre (Smoke Signals, Skins, Edge of Americas). Three screenings are scheduled in August for Minneapolis, Lincoln, Neb., and Rochester, N.Y.

At a screening in Duluth, Brown told a capacity crowd of about 300, “What you’re about to see is something really powerful and really painful.”

After Brown spoke in Duluth, he sat down with ICTMN to answer questions about his past, his hopes and the film.

How did the filmmakers approach you to make this documentary?

I approached them. I was sitting in a sociology class at the White Earth Technical College and in comes this short fellow who identified himself as Jack Riccobono, filmmaker. “I’m like, “What are you doing around here, Dude? Are you one of those white guys who’s infatuated with Indians? We’ve got enough of them. We don’t want you here.”

I told him, ‘if you want to make a movie, if you want to sell tickets, follow me around one day of my life, and you’ll sell a bunch of movies.”

He said, ‘Ok, what if I did that? What if I came back with some colleagues of mine and we followed you around and filmed you just being you. Nothing special, just being you.’ That happened 6 years ago. … and that was 14 shoots over 2½ years.

Lo and behold, the editing process took about a year, and they did different cuts of the film and finally they had a story that I was not aware of and named it The Seventh Fire, and got Natalie Portman involved and Terrence Malick agreed to present it. Chris Eyre agreed to be one of the executive producers. Nicholas Britell agreed to do the music. All these people collaborating from all over the world to put a story to the worse parts of my life, documenting the beginning of the best years of my life. It’s a powerful story and one that I’m thankful to participate in.

What has your last year been like?

My last year, I was sitting in county jail on a work release program and took a weekend pass and Jack showed me a cut of the film. I didn’t like it; I wanted to punch him, but I didn’t punch him. I was angry at how he depicted me. After the emotion subsided, the anger emotion, I realized that I was angry at him about how I depicted myself.

[I moved to California], I’m working with a nice program called Wavelengths Recovery to help people who are struggling with addiction, and now I feel like my life is complete. I’m sober, and I’m not using drugs or alcohol, I’m comfortable with that.

How has your relationship with your children changed since you’ve been sober?

I’m interacting with them a lot more. When they call, I answer. When they don’t call, I call them, and I just love it when they answer.

What’s next for you?

I’m working on a project called Risk, Reward and Redemption – An American Story. These are themes that are based on Shakespeare and all the other controversial stuff that people still find enjoyable to read and review and I enjoy creating. I enjoy writing in that style and I enjoy that specific genre.

Robert Brown, subject of the documentary 'The Seventh Fire,' shot on the White Earth Reservation. (Photo: Konnie LeMay)

Photo: Konnie LeMay
Robert Brown, subject of the documentary ‘The Seventh Fire,’ shot on the White Earth Reservation.
Are you pleased with the response at the Duluth Superior Film Festival?

I was more than pleased, I was overwhelmed. It’s so touching. Given the material in this film, but the overall message, to start out, to appear so hopeless and to end with, “Wow, what happens next?” So many unanswered questions, but some hope. These guys were so supportive. I was getting sore from writing autographs, you know, that’s moving. That’s touching, and I’m thankful for that. It’s a blessing.

For information and upcoming screenings, visit The Seventh Fire.

Watch the trailer below: