On Wednesday, Oct. 26 at 5 p.m., a day before armed soldiers and law enforcement officers dressed in riot gear began arresting protesters at Standing Rock, a packed audience gathered in the Vogelstein auditorium to view a screening and discussion of Jack Riccobono’s film, “The Seventh Fire.”
At a time when the issues of Native people have started to emerge into the public consciousness, the film tells the story of two Native American men struggling to break out of the cycle of gang violence that plagues Native communities. Proving that the fight for the rights of Native people is far from over, “The Seventh Fire” and the discussion that followed brought to a fresh audience the struggles of a people whose voices have been almost universally silenced.
Origins of the film stem back to director Jack Riccobono’s 2007 short film, titled “The Sacred Food,” about wild rice and its impact on the oral traditions of the tribe that would be featured in “The Seventh Fire.” At the panel, Riccobono said, “A few years after making that short, one of our producing partners on this project read about this phenomenon of gang culture migrating from inner cities and prisons out to remote Native communities across the country.”
After seeing that there was very little information on the topic, Riccobono thought, “Let me go back to the community where I made the short to see if it’s happening there and if people will talk to us about it.”
The director made his first research trip in October of 2010, where he met Rob Brown, the man who would become one of the film’s central characters. “The Seventh Fire” focuses on the stories of Rob Brown, an experienced Native American gang leader, and Kevin Fineday Jr., his adolescent counterpart, who are both caught in the cycle of gang violence that plague their community. Filmed over a period of three years with 14 shoots and over 300 hours of footage, the film details the lives of the two men as they move in and out of prison, struggling to decide whether to break out of the vicious cycle of violence or continue on the same path.
With its candid, impartial style, the filmmakers never look to impose judgment on their subjects and instead seek a “fly-on-the-wall” perspective. Assistant Professor of Film Shane Slattery-Quintanilla, the writer, producer and co-director of photography on the film, sought to bring viewers to a place that has very little representation on screen.
As Quintanilla emphasized, “[Our goal was to] transport the audience to a place they might not have ever seen but that is important for citizens of this country to understand better.” In terms of forming a narrative arc from over 300 hours of footage, Quintanilla stressed the job of a writer on a documentary feature, and discussed how the writer credit is becoming much more common in non-fiction film. As he stated, “[E]ven if there isn’t a script, there is still the shaping of a story.”
On his role as an editor, Quintanilla said, “The decisions about what to include and leave out are difficult and take a lot of time, in large part because you’re dealing with real people, real lives and real issues that don’t–and shouldn’t–necessarily fit neatly into existing narrative forms.”
Ultimately, the immersion of the audience into the world of the characters was of the utmost importance for the filmmakers. Quintanilla said at the screening: “If you fail at that, none of the other story points will even matter.”
The characters, specifically Rob Brown, draw viewers into the story and stay with you long after the credits have rolled. At the discussion panel, Riccobono spoke of his first encounter with Brown: “We sort of hit it off—he had been pretty recently released from his fourth trip to prison and was at an interesting moment in his life.”
Soon Brown was on board with the project and, Riccobono stated, “He saw this as an opportunity and became a collaborator at that point interested in telling his story.” Native American filmmaker and Executive Producer Chris Eyre on “The Seventh Fire” also spoke of his first impression of Brown and told how he was immediately struck by his charisma despite years of tremendous hardship.
Eyre recognizes how the film tackles serious problems, such as a broken foster care system, through Brown’s eyes. He noted, “What the hell happens in our system when somebody isn’t red flagged when they go through 39 foster care homes?”
Brown’s story left a huge mark on the film due to the nature of this largely character-driven piece, and the filmmakers tried to capture the world through Brown’s eyes. Quintanilla explained, “We wanted to make it a film that fit with Rob’s sensibilities. He’s a very lyrical, poetic thinker and we wanted to do justice to the way he saw the world.”
After a vibrant post-film discussion, it was clear that everyone involved had a deep connection to each featured individual and their stories. Eyre put it simply, “When you make something, it’s part of you and this is all part of us.” For too long, the stories of Native peoples have not been considered a part of us and instead are distanced from the collective “American Experience.”
This film and our contemporary climate clearly demonstrate that the time is now for their voices to be heard. So if you’re looking to engage with the stories of Native Americans after you “check in” at Standing Rock on Facebook, a viewing of “The Seventh Fire” certainly would not hurt.
[Correction (May 15, 2019): An earlier version of this article included an unauthorized photo.]