Few documentaries arrive with the pedigree of The Seventh Fire. Executive produced by Natalie Portman and presented by the legendary Terrence Malick, Jack Pettibone Riccobono’s debut feature boasts an enviable roster of admirers. It is easy to see why. Eye-opening, unsettling yet highly compassionate filmmaking; this fire is destined to burn itself deep into the memory.
Pine Point, Minnesota. A Native American community blighted by widespread unemployment, endemic drug use and ubiquitous criminality. Local gang stalwart Robert Brown wrestles with the consequences of his past choices ahead of a 3-year jail term, whilst teenaged drug dealer Kevin Fineday has a choice of his own; continue his criminal career or embark on a lawful normal life.
Riccobono clinically captures disturbing visions of modern reservation life. Furniture set ablaze for sport, women’s hair torn out in drunken brawls, mothers snorting cocaine within feet of their babies. The hopelessness afflicting the town is palpable. There are no jobs, only drink and drugs. Little wonder only ten per cent of residents will escape the place over ten years. It is a shocking portrait of the problems facing the community, one that elicits profound sympathy.
The loss of Native tradition encapsulates Pine Point’s woes. Dream-catchers vie for wall space with Scarface posters. The older folk prepare meat whilst the young mix dope. Little understanding crosses the generational divide; Kevin’s father explains ancient beliefs while his son is more interested in teaching him to texting. The painful decline of this indigenous community is a rich seam running throughout the film.
Beneath his gang tattoos and top dog swagger Brown himself hides great pain. He reads aloud his case history, a catalogue of numerous foster homes, physical and sexual abuse. In his youth an aspiring writer, stripped of the drugs he is a soulful man trapped in a soulless time. His poem Back Again, a regretful lament of his incarceration, is deeply moving. Brown’s Native name, Two Thunderbirds, hints at his potential destiny; to warn his people of the oncoming storm.
It is a warning Kevin would do well to heed. Torn between a pursuing a normal job and becoming the biggest dealer in town, his baby-face masks troubling intent. A downcast Fineday complains his girlfriend ignores his texts. But his repeated betrayal on drug deals caused this teenage breakup. Kevin’s flirtation with culturally focussed rehabilitation suggests hope, but the depressing inference at the film’s close is that the cycle is likely to continue.
The Seventh Fire is as visually arresting as it is thematically compelling, with images worthy of The Great Malick himself; Minnesota snow falling on a field, a spectacularly ominous thunderstorm. Even a burning car is shot through with a nihilistic beauty. All this combines for a vital and essential documentary that gives an unflinching insight into the perils facing a marginalised community.
The Seventh Fire screens on Tuesday 7th July at 6:30pm as part of the East End Film Festival. For more information visit http://www.eastendfilmfestival.com/programme-2015/15360/seventh-fire-the