The Seventh Fire


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

The Seventh Fire
"A lot of people live like this and their stories need to be told, but it's not clear here that the director is always on the right side of the line."

The Seventh Fire is a prophecy among the Ojibwe people of North America (and some related tribes). It describes a time when a choice must be made between two paths - one of them lush and green, the other charred and painful to walk along. The wisdom necessary to make the right choice, it notes, can be found only from turning back to reflect on tradition, but this will be complicated by difficulty in accessing the elders. One path leads to eternal peace. The destination of the other is uncertain.

As with many prophecies describing the future of a people, the story of the seventh fire might also be taken as a guide to dealing with challenges in individual lives. Kevin, an ambitious but troubled teenager, must work out which path he wants to take in his. One offers instant reward - the spoils and status of success as a drug dealer in the reservation where he lives - yet may result in him ending up like his role model, 37 year old Rob, who is facing his fifth prison sentence and sorrowing at the thought of not seeing the child his partner is carrying until it's two years old. Without dispensing with his own macho image, Rob gently tries to persuade the youth to consider a different route - one that might take him beyond the reservation, let him become one of those rare young people who make it.

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Director Jack Pettibone Riccobono doesn't labour the point, but he doesn't have to - the only positive future the young people here can see requires abandoning their homes and, inevitably, aspects of the culture that their families have clung to for long decades against the odds. But on the the reservation itself, it is hardly thriving. Few Ojibwe words remain in day to day use there. Traditional hairstyles are reduced to token motifs as the kids try to imitate urban gangster chic. Family structures have disintegrated - there are hints of the miserable childhood that led to Rob making the choices he did - and fights break out for trivial reasons. With high unemployment and virtually no public facilities - aside from a playground which serves as a focal point for everyone from five to 25 - there are no real sources of pleasure other than drink, drugs and sex. Kevin's girlfriend is pregnant too, at just 16, and he regards this as something unremarkable; his decision to stand by her is sweet but also indicative of an inability to imagine anything else they could do with their lives.

Is this much needed illumination of major social problem or is it exploitation? Pettibone Riccobono has admitted approaching his recorded material selectively in order to raise the drama quotient. A lot of people live like this and their stories need to be told, but it's not clear here that the director is always on the right side of the line. One needs to be alert to be alert to some of the problems common to reservations at the outset in order to identify them here - it would be all too easy to watch the film and come away condemning its subjects for making bad choices. Whilst they certainly bear responsibility for what they do, it would help to have some focus on, for instance, the barriers that make it difficult to simply leave and get a job elsewhere. It's also uncomfortable seeing Kevin put his drug use on camera when he clearly lacks any awareness of how this might further limit his options in life, and when its really not necessary to the telling of his ale.

In addition to this, despite the drama, the film is slow and struggles to find a clear voice. Although there s definitely a shortage of films about reservation life, it's not clear what this one is saying that hasn't been said better before. Its subjects feel distanced, objectified, when it would have been interesting to see them given more control over the developing narrative. Rob, who hopes to get published one day, recites some of his poetry, and whilst it's nothing special it illustrates that he has a more sophisticated grasp of his situation than we might otherwise be led to believe. Whilst Pettibone Riccobono has made a bold stab at explaining a complex situation to the world, it's not clear that he has anything approaching this level of understanding himself.

Reviewed on: 08 Nov 2016
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The Seventh Fire packshot
A documentary about Ojibwe gangsters in Minnesota.

Director: Jack Pettibone Riccobono

Writer: Jack Pettibone Riccobono, Shane Slattery-Quintanilla, Andrew Ford

Year: 2015

Runtime: 78 minutes

Country: US


EastEnd 2015

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