Director Jack Pettibone Riccobono and producer Shane Slattery-Quintanilla talk about how their intimate study of a troubled Native American community drew in high-profile collaborators.

Director Jack Pettibone Riccobono and producer Shane Slattery-Quintanilla came to the Berlinale not only with their debut feature documentary, The Seventh Fire, they also came with some big names attached to the film – Natalie Portman as an executive producer and Terrence Malick presenting the film.

The story of this powerful documentary, and its remarkable collaborators, actually began in Berlin in 2004, as American director Riccobono attended the Talent Campus that year (it was his first international film festival experience). The next year, he and other Talent Campus alumni were invited to make five-minute shorts related to the slow food movement to show in Berlin’s Culinary Cinema section.

While researching that slow food, he discovered that the Ojibwe tribe holds wild rice as one of its sacred foods, and harvests rice on reservations such as White Earth Reservation in Minnesota. In 2006 he spent time shooting on the reservation and presented the short, The Sacred Food, in Culinary Cinema in 2007.

Then in 2009 he read a small article about gang culture among Native American communities, and he knew he wanted to revisit the Ojibwe. “We started looking into it, and there was nothing in the mainstream media,” the director tells Screen. “So I thought I would go back to Wide Earth reservation and I did the first research trip in October 2010. I visited the tribal college, and Rob [Brown, the film’s main subject] was in the audience that day. We spent several hours speaking after class.”

He found a compelling protagonist in Brown; and at the right time in his life – he was about to go to prison for the fifth time in his life, and pensive about his past mistakes and looking to his own future and his cultural heritage. The second main subject of the film, 18-year-old Kevin Fineday, was at a different point in this tragic cycle – getting ready to go to prison for the first time, seen as something like a rite of passage.

Most people in the Pine Point community were willing to tell their story warts and all. Riccobono explains, “Most of them had never been asked what their experience was like.” They spent the next two and a half years filming on 14 separate shoots.

The filmmakers earned the community’s trust over time. “When I did the short, I didn’t take my camera out for the first three days You are just there as a human being. That’s the only way to build up trust,” Riccobono adds. “Also, we see them as collaborators and we gave them some pocket cameras to shoot with as well.” The result is a remarkably intimate film that draws the audience in emotionally, but also showing some disturbing scenes of widespread drug abuse in the community.

Once the community saw how deeply Brown was involved, they were also convinced, Slattery-Quintanilla adds (he was also one of the film’s cinematographers).

The film balances these interior shots with beautiful shots of the surrounding landscapes. “We felt like the subject matter called for it being cinematic… Malick is very much an inspiration for us in the way he uses landscape to tell stories,” Slattery-Quintanilla adds.

Famed filmmaker Chris Eyre came on board as an executive producer after seeing some early footage. Portman had followed Riccobono’s shorts and the director says she was “taken in by Rob and Kevin’s story as well as our approach.” She gave the team feedback on multiple cuts of the film and of course in Berlin she gave the film a higher profile.”

Portman, who stars in Malick’s Berlinale Competition title Knight of Cups, thought he would appreciate the work, given his interest in Native American issues as well as the artful look of the film. Malick was also more than a figurehead, “he gave us important notes,” Riccobono adds.

And his name will also hopefully help draw in audiences. “This film is not just for that crowd that goes to see social issue documentaries,” Riccobono says. “We want someone to think, ‘If you like Malick, you might also respond to the aesthetic of this film.’”

Riccobono says that the film is certainly not just for a limited audience. “These are American issues, not just Native American issues. “ A platform like Berlin has also demonstrated they are issues important globally, as they have had audience members drawing comparisons to indigenous communities from Sweden to New Zealand.

The team is planning an outreach campaign to go along with the film; another key plan is to do a screening tour to multiple reservations in the US, with expert speakers and native musicians. (CAA handles US rights and Wide House sells internationally.)

Riccobono and Slattery-Quintanilla first met studying film at Harvard and later both taught at Vassar College. The director and producer are now at work on a fictional feature script, but aren’t yet revealing details.