Illustration by John Ritter
Featuring 200-plus films from more than 60 countries, the Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival—now in its 35th year—hangs its hat on a uniquely global POV. But this year MSPIFF’s biggest storyline is a documentary filmed in Minnesota that’s finally coming home after a journey that included screenings in Berlin, Iran, and the White House. The Seventh Fire, from N.Y.C.-based director Jack Pettibone Riccobono and executive producers Natalie Portman and Terrence Malick, focuses on the largely misunderstood culture of drugs and gangs besieging the White Earth Ojibwe Reservation near Detroit Lakes. As Riccobono says of the raw, stylized portrait, “You may have heard about many of these issues, but in the film you really see them on a personal level—you see them transform individuals before your eyes.”
The Seventh Fire will play for the first time in Minnesota on April 23 at the closing night of the MSPIFF. "We’re very excited about it and there’s no other place that would be better for the premiere, so it’s kind of the perfect fit," said Riccobono. The premiere showing will inlcude live performances from Minneapolis-based Ojibwe rappers Tall Paul and Chase Manhattan, as well as a Q&A with the film's main subjects, Rob and Kevin. We caught up with Riccobono about his experience filming in Minnesota, and what it means to bring The Seventh Fire to the MSPIFF.
Being from New York, how did you originally become interested in reservations, and White Earth in particular?
It was an interesting journey that brought me to White Earth the first time. I was working with the Slow Food Organization, which is very committed to biodiversity and protecting methods of indigenous farming and collecting. I was working to create a five-minute short about one of their communities, and that’s when I came upon White Earth Reservation and the wild rice of the Ojibwe. It’s a sacred food for the tribe, and part of the prophecy that brought them to Minnesota, and into the whole lakes region in the upper U.S. I called up the White Earth Land Recovery Project—they were very welcoming and were having a special camp about wild rice that they invited me to. So that’s what brought me to the reservation for the first time, I think in 2006 or 2007.
What was it about the people of Pine Point that compelled you to make The Seventh Fire?
I learned about the Seven Fires prophecy when I was on the wild rice shoot, and I found that really fascinating. Wild rice is a part of that prophecy, which foretells different periods of Ojibwe history. I did not really engage in the topic of The Seventh Fire on that trip at all, but I did get to know some people there, and that led me to come back. A couple of years after I made the short, my producing partner read an article about the spread of gang culture to remote native communities across the U.S., and the migration of inner-city gang culture to communities where you wouldn’t necessarily expect to find gang tattoos, graffiti, drugs, and drive-by shootings. We started to look into it in the fall of 2010, and there was very little out there about the topic. Eventually I decided to take a trip back to the reservation to see if it was happening there, and if anyone would talk to me about it. That’s when I went to the White Earth Tribal College, where I visited a class and showed my short film. In the class that day was Rob Brown, and he would become the main subject of The Seventh Fire.
He had just recently been released from his fourth trip to prison and was in Tribal College. He came up to me after the class and said, ‘So, you want to know about native gangs? You should talk to me.’ We went and had a coffee at the casino and just kind of hit it off. Rob was, I think, 36 years old at that point, and he was definitely in a moment in his life when he was interested in sharing his story, and also interested in trying to make a change. He’s a very complex and dynamic person—he’s a self-taught writer who worked on a novel behind bars, and has written a lot of poetry. He has an ability to speak about his situation and the issues facing his community, while still being trapped in that life. That made him a very unique subject for a film. He was very emotional—a lot of gang guys can sometimes be very cut off and remote, but could share a lot about his experience in a very deep way. I asked him if he would be interested in having me come back with a film crew and film with him, and he agreed, so we did the first shoot in January 2011, and did 14 shoots over the next two and a half years.
What did you do to earn the trust of the subjects of the film?
It’s a really long process; one thing that I definitely learned shooting the wild rice short was that you have to be really patient. The first few days that I was there I didn’t even take my camera out, and I didn’t get one of the crucial interviews until my very last day. You have to take the time to visit with people and get to know them and share what your intentions are. We continued to go back to the community over and over again over two and a half years, and I think that went a long way to showing people that we were committed and invested in telling the story.
I read that you gave cameras to the residents of Pine Point—how involved was the community with filming and helping to capture the story? Why were they motivated to help tell it?
Rob is very smart and intuitive and understood the process of how we would go about making the film right away, and I think he realized it would be a unique opportunity to be involved with making the film—which isn’t to say they’re aren’t ups and downs along the way. We definitely always saw Rob and Kevin as collaborators in the making of the film, and we gave both of them cameras to use when we weren’t with them, and we do feature some of that footage in the film. It’s a very complex relationship, and it certainly involves a lot of trust on both sides. I’m trusting that they will stick with me and see the project through to completion, and they’re entrusting me with how they’ll be depicted, and the way that I go about sharing their stories with other people.
What was your biggest takeaway from the time you spent in Pine Point?
One thing that I found really amazing was the development of Rob’s writing. When he was sentenced to go back to prison for a fifth time, I asked him to keep a journal while he was behind bars. As part of that journal he wrote quite a few poems, and he would send me sheets of paper in the mail that he tore out of his journal. We featured one of his poems in the film, and we’re putting together a book that features stills from the film with a selection of Rob’s poems that he composed while behind bars.
Another thing that will really stick with me is the impact that it had on Rob to be given the encouragement to develop his writing skills. I think that he had never really been in that position before, to be told that he could pursue this writing career if that’s what he wants to do. It was really awesome to see the work he was able to create. I think that creative writing for him was really part of his survival while he was behind bars. It was a way for him to escape his surroundings and process all of the intense experiences that have defined his life, and channel that into something positive—something he could share with the world.
What was the biggest challenge while making the film?
When Rob got sentenced to prison, that was probably the biggest challenge because we didn’t know what kind of access we would have to him. But we had other kinds of challenges as well. Rob would often be wearing a wireless microphone, and on several occasions he might go into a house ahead of us. We’d be in the car, and the soundman could hear the conversation inside, and some of Rob’s associates would be talking about robbing us. We’d have to decide if we should stay or drive off. Thankfully Rob was very intuitive about the process, and was often able to steer the conversation in another direction. We were definitely fortunate that we did not suffer any major violence or anything like that over the course of making the film. We tried to be careful and not take a lot of unnecessary risks, but we also wanted to be true to the story, so that’s always a tricky balancing act.
What do you hope your film will bring to the Minneapolis St. Paul Film Festival? What does it mean to show this film in the state it’s about?
For me, it’s really about hopefully creating additional dialogue. I hope that this film presents some of these issues—that I feel many Minnesotans have heard about—in a fresh way. Maybe jumpstart a new dialogue about the best way to deal with issues on the reservations, and issues with incarceration and the criminal justice system. That was what part of my hope was in making the film. You really go on a journey with Rob and Kevin, and see both of them transform over the course of the film. While you may have heard about many of the issues affecting them in terms of drug culture and gang culture, crime, the foster care system, and the juvenile system, in the film, you really see it on a personal level. You see it transform individuals before your eyes, and I think that gives you a very different perspective.
Do you think you brought a different perspective than someone from Minnesota, or from the reservation, could have brought to the film?
I had a native activist tell me that she thought the fact that I was an outsider was part of what allowed me to go so deep into the story. I think sometimes it does help to come from outside, and not have the connections that could influence your decisions. It cuts both ways, and you need to have local people as part of your team, but I think it definitely provided me with the opportunity to see the potential in these stories. The stories of Rob and Kevin, which are very intimate stories, are also very universal in a lot of ways—they speak to issues that are happening not just all across Indian country, but all across the U.S. in all different communities. This is a film that’s really about the next chapter and the evolution of gang culture, and it’s a story about broken systems—the foster care system, the juvenile system, the correctional system. Although it’s about a very particular place, I think it speaks to much broader issues.
Have you been in touch with Rob and Kevin recently? What effect has the film's release had on them?
Rob was released from prison in the beginning of September, and he was able to travel with us to Santa Fe for the North American premiere of the film. He has been able to go to several festivals with us, including the Hawaii International Film Festival and Palm Springs International Film Festival. That’s been really special—Santa Fe was his first time being on an airplane, and when he came to Hawaii, that was his first time seeing the ocean.
Beyond that, he’s a very gifted speaker, and being able to have him on stage to talk directly with the audience adds a whole other layer to having seen the film. That’s been very special. He will definitely be in attendance for the screening on April 23. We anticipate that the MSIPFF will be the first time that both Rob and Kevin will appear on stage after the film.
Kevin has pretty recently moved off the reservation—I don’t want to say exactly what city he’s living in—but he’s living in a Minnesota city now and is working full time, and he’s not using or dealing drugs. I’m in contact with him and we just found out yesterday that the film will be screened at the White House on March 24, and so we are hoping to get both Rob and Kevin to Washington, D.C. for that experience, which will be kind of crazy.
Film premieres in Minnesota April 23. St. Anthony Main. MSPIFF 2016, April 7–23, 612-331-7563, mspfilm.org