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Interview: Jack Riccobono talks The Seventh Fire

Culture.

It’s something that everyone has, perhaps more so than others. Finding an identity in the history of your people, your country, and defining elements of yourself by these surroundings. Culture can be used, manipulated, and abused but can also enhance who you are and the community that surrounds.

In the bustling heart of London, The Seventh Fire has a quiet release, screening at two cinemas over the course of a week – Curzon’s Bertha Dochouse and Picturehouse Central.  In the heart of Britain’s film industry, surrounded by a vast array of cultures either living inside the London community or outside of it, it is very fitting that Jack Riccobono’s phenomenal and poignant documentary is screening – particularly as it’s about an American culture lesser known elsewhere.


“It was cool. It wasn’t really a press tour. I wanted to come over and I have friends in London. How often do you hav a movie opening in London?” says Riccobono over a shady Skype connection. The director, living in New York, is enthused with excitement about his evocative and poignant film. “My editor is British and he came up in the Soho film scene. It was really fun to be there with him. It was a really good trip.”

The Seventh Fire, despite opening in small theatres for a mere week, is sure to make a deep and impactful impression on those who attend it. “It has had a legitimate run during film festivals. There have been good write-ups and reviews with major publications such as a neat Sight & Sound review and four stars from Time Out London and the Evening Standard. It’s great to get that feedback.”

The positive reviews and influx of endearing responses have cheered the New York native. “Sometimes people don’t get the movie or put together the pieces and there’s a lot of pressure for reviewers on the festival circus and it’s kind of a circus. So it’s great to get these intricate pieces on the film.”

The Seventh Fire, a movie about crime within the Ojibwe community within the Minnesota reservation, is certainly an impressive feature that seers into your mind as you ruminate on scenes and the real life characters within. “That’s kind of the best response that you can get,” Riccobono says on his triumphant piece. “Especially in this culture that is now so disposable and so much stuff is coming at us every time. It’s nice to have that film that stays with viewers.

The idea for the movie came from a previous short film that they had made on a similar subject – a special rise that this particular tribe eats and the prophecy called The Seventh Fire that moved the tribe to central US from the Northern Eastern shore. But the feature developed and Riccobono found himself exploring the troubling side of the Tribe. “My producing partner read this article on how gang culture was moving out of prisons and into inner cities and to these remote Native American communities. I was really interested in it and started to investigate further by taking the short film to the local Tribal College in 2010.”

As fate would have it, Rob Brown- our lead in the documentary – was sitting in the very same class and was more than willing to co-operate and share his experiences with the director.

He came up to me like ‘You want to know about Native gangs?’ Let’s talk” says Riccobono and the rest, as they would say, is history. “We just hit it off in terms of personalities and had a good sense of humour and I proposed the possibility of coming back with the film crew. He was open to it and in January 2011, we did fourteen shoots over two and a half years!”

Naturally, entering a tight-knit culture and recording their crime habits and how it impacts the community is a daring and often dangerous premise for a filmmaker. Luckily, thanks to the connection with Rob, Jack was able to get access to the often unseen parts of Objiwe. “There is a lot of tension but at the same time, you are appealing to people’s ego and they are interested to be a part of the film, particularly at the beginning,” the young director states. “Rob was not looking to incriminate himself. He was smart and savvy, living the life of a gang member since he was a teenager. He saw the film as an opportunity and knew where it was heading. It was intriguing to go on this journey with him. H e was very smart and very intuitive – always wanting to get into the process of making a film.”

“Rob was able to take us to communities that make them comfortable with us being there. He’d help facilitate people as he had a certain stature in the community and had that power to let us in,” Jack muses about being able to explore hidden depth to the community.

But there were particular sticky situations in which Jack and his sound guy feared for their safety. “There was one time me and the sound guy were sitting outside in the car and we sent Rob into a house with a wireless microphone and they started talking about how they wanted to rob us. We had that decision whether or not to just leave right then but Rob had to subtly stir the conversation into letting us record and that happened on more than one occasion. We weren’t trying to be reckless in shooting, we weren’t trying to put ourselves in dangerous situations – we were trying to capture what life was like. Needless to say, we tried not stay in the reservation after dark too often.”

All though there were times where the filming took them to the twilight of the reservation and one of them produces a prevailing, intense, and brutal scene with in the movie. “Rob had to turn himself in before a three year sentence and we felt it was important to capture the last night in his community for the story. That night got really scary. It became out of control and there was a fight that broke out. It turned very quickly. You see all that in the film and ou feel that tension from the beginning of scene. By the end, it total turned into a pretty scary direction,”

Ribbocono definitely found an illuminating real-life subject with Rob and their professional relationship was stimulated with respect. Certainly, there is a sense that Rob opened up the film and documentary in impressive ways and helped shape the film. “When I met Rob, I definitely felt like ‘Here is a totally unique subject.’ He was someone with the depth and the ability to speak about his situation. His very thoughtful and reflective nature was still caught in the gang life. His physicality was big and imposing. He was very charismatic on camera. All those things definitely jumped out to me as someone who’d carry the feature and the audience would want to follow.

“The film is very character driven It’s really cinematic and would transport you to a place with a view you wouldn’t go yourself and experience in a very visceral way – one of a kind type of subject from the beginning – what journey from life would take”

Speaking of characters and stories core to The Seventh Fire juxtaposed against Rob’s mature and lengthy gang life, the other subject followed is Kevin. At time of filming, Kevin was just 17 years old and was following in the footsteps of Rob and others like him. “Kevin really emerged as an amazing counterpoint to Rob because he is so young and at a different phase of his life. When you meet him in the film, he is still pretty innocent and had only been in juvenile prison. He wasn’t an adult trying to figure out what to do with his life and you can feel the power Rob has over him as a larger than life mentor.  You are able to see how these issues are trapped in this cycle like gangs, drugs, and violence. This way of life has been trickling through generation to generation.”

The Seventh Fire has had an impressive run and also some big names as supporters since production. Actress and campaigner Natalie Portman and director Terence Malick both helped nurture and grow the project. Still bemused by the pairing and support, Riccobono says, “Looking back. I could never have imagined this. We had a very difficult time raising financing for the film. There was a production company named Sundial Pictures  and they had produced a pretty large range of narrative products like Gio Dreams of Susi. They became a production partner and gave us funding get it off the ground.

The funding situation is very difficult for independent films. Grants and public television weren’t able to raise any money at any point and it felt like hitting a wall. We were barely scraping basic costs and then we had to travel. We ended up sleeping on friend’s couches, borrowing equipment, and working round the clock to get everything done.”

Natalie Portmann, Maryanne Redpath, Jack Pettibone Riccobono, and Shane Omar Slattery-Quintanilla at Berlinale 2015

Along the way, their footage already accrued was passed onto Natalie Portman who responded, giving the project a window and an opportunity. “Portman is very savvy about her celebrity and the causes she gets involved in, bringing attention to ones that need an extra boost. She came on board as an executive producer helped us develop, seeing cuts and telling us where to go.”

From their new relationship with Portman, they soon were in contact with Knight of Cups director Terrence Malick. “She (Portman) had collaborated with the director and they had a close relationship. He was responsive to the filmmaking style – this immersive cinematic visual piece – and he had a long standing interest into Native issues as they feature heavily in his films. He gave a really nice letter of support and when we were in post, we went back and shared it with him again. He agreed to come on board.”

“There was a group of very passionate people trying to carry on the project through the US and now we have a July release.” Riccobono excitably mentions, and heading to the big screen. “As a small documentary, it’s hard to get screen time these days. Everything is going towards streaming and digital viewing. But filmmakers still care about the theatrical so it’s brilliant to see it in cinemas.”

Jack Riccobono is hopefully winding down and relaxing from a ferocious and brilliant tour of his movie. However, the young bright director, with a clear strong career ahead; he’s working on a scripted series as well as producing another documentary.

For now, make sure you check out The Seventh Fire as soon as you can.


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