'The Seventh Fire': Berlin Review

The Seventh Fire
Courtesy of Berlin International Film Festival
A fascinating and important documentary that takes some time to get going

Terrence Malick presents this documentary from Jack Pettibone Riccobono that was executive produced by Natalie Portman

The hardscrabble lives of two men on the White Earth Reservation in Minnesota are chronicled over several years in The Seventh Fire, the first feature documentary from director Jack Pettibone Riccobono, who earlier shot his short The Sacred Food on the same reservation. Presented by Terrence Malick and with Oscar-winner Natalie Portman onboard as an executive producer, this important and fascinating but also somewhat unevenly assembled film comes cloaked in prestige that no-doubt helped it score a Berlinale Special premiere and should help it get noticed in the marketplace.

Riccobono, producer and co-cinematographer Shane Omar Slattery-Quintanilla and cutter Andrew Ford are credited as the film’s writers, with two further people alongside Ford responsible for the editing, which might explain why the film’s early going lacks a unifying vision. The first couple of reels are very loosely structured, with no one identified onscreen, which gives the film a verite edge but which also means that it takes a good while for the material to find its footing and make it clear what and, more importantly, who, the film is exactly about.

The feature’s protagonists finally turn out to be Rob Brown, in his thirties, and Kevin Fineday, who’ll be 18 when the film ends. They are, respectively, a criminal with (as per the press notes) ties to the Native Gangster Disciples gang and his young and unofficial protégé of sorts, with the initially scrawny Kevin looking up to the hulking Brown, who’s been to prison already five times. Kevin, called a liar and worse by several others around him, admits on camera he’s torn between the idea of becoming a big drug dealer and "doing something somewhat the right way," though for the moment, he described himself as a "middle man, for weed, pills, meth, whatever," and says that’s pretty much his "job until further notice". In one of the film’s strongest scenes, which would have deserved a bit more prominence, Brown tells Kevin that he already spent 12 years in jail and Kevin’s only 15 years old. “Don’t be like me and get used to it,” he says, though at that very moment, Kevin’s just told Rob he hopes he’ll get his first plea bargain.

Brown, meanwhile, has impregnated his girlfriend of three months before he’s off to jail for another 57 month stint and Kevin has even followed his example in this respect, knocking up a girl who then lost the baby a couple of weeks into her pregnancy. She blames herself, saying she "messed up" (not quite the term she uses) birth control and has since broken up with Kevin over the fact he "messed" -- more f-words used here -- with several drugs deals for her, each time adding salt to the meth he’s selling so as to increase the weight. Clearly, any idea of a connection or some kind of affection between these two human beings seems far-fetched; Brown, despite the fact he’s about to miss out on the first two-and-a-half years of his daughter’s life, seems a little -- but just a little -- luckier in that respect.

What thus emerges, initially in fits and starts but then more forcefully as the film builds and the relationships crystallize, is a picture of life in the reservation community of Pine Point (or P-Town") as a place where lying and cheating, scoring and selling drugs and a host of other criminal activities are the order of the day and something as normal as love and human warmth are in short supply, with even the rapport between Kevin and his father feeling distant. Drug use is filmed with an unflinching eye (though some of this footage is not as high-definition as the rest) while posters on the walls in the background attest to an unoriginal and unhealthy obsession with the Brian De Palma version of Scarface, which seems to have made being a gangster super cool, suggesting exactly none of the people of an entire generation watched the film al the way through until it’s bloody, tragic and supremely ironic ending.

A few shots in the film, including some in which a stray armchair or car is on fire in the otherwise pretty desolate landscape, have a lyrical or even metaphorical quality that might have impressed Malick, though more often the camerawork of Riccobono and Slattery-Quintanilla seems to focus on just recording what is happening around them. Once back behind bars, Brown’s gift for literature adds another artistic touch as well as a welcome antidote to the idea the protagonists are simple lowlifes with no artistic sensibilities or any capacity of self-expression. His verses, some of which are heard in voice-over, allow him to suggest what’s on his mind quite eloquently in rap-like verse ("A true criminal go-getter/Five times/I’d’ve known better/All the time/To write a letter/..."). 

If Kevin’s first trip to jail feels almost like a rite-of-passage, the result of a crime foretold, the fate of Kevin and especially Robert does finally suggest that there’s some hope for betterment in their lives, something Nicholas Britell’s quietly supportive, almost sotto-voce score seems to be alluding to throughout. The film's poetic title refers to the Seven Fires Prophecy, which suggests that, after a long period of cultural destruction, the youngest generation of the Ojibwe tribe will lead the rebirth of their nation by returning to the traditional ways. 


Production companies: All Rites Reserved, Sundial Pictures, Rich Hippie Productions

Director: Jack Pettibone Riccobono

Screenplay: Jack Pettibone Riccobono, Shane Omar Slattery-Quintanilla, Andrew Ford

Producers: Jack Pettibone Riccobono, Shane Omar Slattery-Quintanilla, Jihan Robinson, Joey Carey

Executive producers: Natalie Portman, Chris Eyre, Sydney Holland, Erik Fleming, Gavin Dougan, Stefan Nowicki, Lonnie Anderson

Co-producer: Bruce Kim

Directors of photography: Jack Pettibone Riccobono, Shane Omar Slattery-Quintanilla

Editors: Andrew Ford, Adelaide Papazoglou, Michael J. Palmer

Music: Nicholas Britell


No rating, 76 minutes