At a festival attended by non-fiction luminaries Werner Herzog, Marcel Ophüls and Joshua Oppenheimer, a new name has emerged with a work demonstrating the power and humanity for which they are known. Jack Pettibone Riccobono’s The Seventh Fire is that most engaging kind of documentary, one that takes a personal, real story and exhibits the emotions and truths within it.
Kevin is a Native American teenager at the poorer end of American society. His whole life is the community in which he lives. Sitting around, driving around, messing around – these are the primary occupations in a territory that has few routes of escape, and no money with which to access them. Kevin scams his own friends in drug deals: everything in this world not only has a price but is very much for sale. His uncle Rob is released on furlough during yet another stretch in jail, and the centre of the drama is the relationship between the older and younger man. What can Rob teach Kevin? Is there any hope for Rob to change his own cycle of incarceration? And how can life improve in a land where the inhabitants are surrounded by mistakes of the past?
The Seventh Fire is so strong because it is more than mere information – it is the story of several lives. We can tell that the stagnation has been the norm for some time; the film succeeds in contrasting this with the immediacy of the people we follow. Kevin is a worthy protagonist, flawed and angst-filled but with a humanity that radiates through. Rob is equally ambiguous – he feels like a man who could go on a rampage at any moment, but has several moments of remarkable tenderness. The most potent of these is when he reads a poem about incarceration written behind bars while we see his animalistic pacing in an inadequate prison cell.
In Berlin Terrence Malick presented the film in name, and indeed it has thematic and visual common ground with his work. Like Malick’s early films the images we see are both stunning and oppressive. Miles of wasteland are punctuated only by a scattering of houses. The cars burning out on the street give an apocalyptic feel, while one shot of snow falling softly across the barren terrain took my breath away and reminded me of the end to James Joyce’s Dubliners. Riccobono, writer/editor Andrew Ford and writer/producer Shane Slattery-Quintanilla draw us in to this darkly beautiful landscape and play out the conflicts upon it. They use extremely personal, emotional footage to raise questions about family, responsibility and the effect of the past and present upon life in the future. The film shows us the plight of Native Americans in a ruthless capitalist society; but this is not issuetainment, as the story is always at the forefront.
The Seventh Fire has received a boost through involvement of executive producers Natalie Portman and Native American filmmaker Chris Eyre. Portman was present at the Berlin premiere and discussed the project on stage with Riccobono post-screening. It is a film worthy of a greater profile, one that values a human story above all else.