Jack Pettibone Riccobono’s The Seventh Fire opens on dark, grainy footage of a highway at dusk before cutting to an overhead shot of a long stretch of forest, and then to two Native American men in a canoe, harvesting worms from a quiet lake. They take the worms home, where they will sell them as bait. One of the men cuts off chunks of meat and tosses them into a bucket — we learn that it’s for a leech trap, and that the leeches themselves will in turn become bait. We never see anyone catch any fish in this movie. And we never see anyone get where they’re going, or really become anything. Everybody’s constantly searching for something. Including, sometimes, the director himself.
Riccobono’s documentary takes place mostly in the town of Pine Point, on the White Earth Indian Reservation in Northern Minnesota. It follows two men: Rob is a 37-year-old gang leader and drug dealer who, when we meet him, is preparing for yet another stint in prison. Kevin is a teenager who idolizes Rob (we can’t tell if they’re related in any way — I briefly thought they might be brothers) but is torn between getting pulled further into a life of crime or finding some way out of this dead-end town. Kevin’s father tells us that every 10 years somebody manages to make it out. It doesn’t seem that Kevin will be the one, but his dad clearly hasn’t lost hope yet.
Kevin and Rob are both proud of their Ojibwe heritage, but they’ve also found ways to adapt that culture — or, at least, their idea of it — to their own worlds, not the other way around. Rob’s gang is called the Native Gangster Disciples. Native American dreamcatchers mix with Scarface posters on Kevin’s walls. The men get the haircuts and the tattoos that are purportedly representative of their people, but for them these symbols fit into a continuum in which they’re also going around selling dope. (Bad dope at that: Rob cuts his meth with laxative; Kevin puts salt in his meth bags, precipitating a breakup with his equally troubled, even younger girlfriend.)
While The Seventh Fire may focus on Rob and Kevin, it doesn’t single them out; it’s clear that they’re partly victims of the ongoing rot in their tiny, desperately poor community. At one point, a shot from above seems to take in the entire village, and we see just how small and desolate the place is. Throughout the film, we see flaming cars and boarded-up houses. Meanwhile, a nearby train line seems to tease Kevin with promises of escape, like a sick joke.
Still, the movie is less about making a grand social statement and more about conveying the ground-level desolation of this world. Riccobono films it all with intelligence, sensitivity and a feel for offhand poetry; his camera captures moments of intimacy and tension without ever quite intruding. Kevin, Rob and others mutter their thoughts out loud, not in sit-down interviews but as they go about their business — as if these ideas can’t stay inside their heads for too long.
The Seventh Fire has the aura of a confessional, which adds to its weirdly displaced quality: Both subjects are surprisingly articulate about their predicaments. It’s like they’re commenting on the slow-motion car wreck that is their lives — as it’s happening. “I still have this idea of being a big-time drug dealer,” Kevin tells us at one point. “But I also want to get a job and try to do shit somewhat the right way.” Meanwhile, Rob talks about how he wants to become a writer; it’s not until he’s back in prison that we actually get to hear some of his poetry.
And then there’s that searching quality. The film repeatedly shows us people looking for one another; toward the end, a youth counselor wanders a small parade ground asking for Kevin, while Riccobono cuts to shots of the teenager wandering amid the small crowd, apparently making some dope transactions. This choice evokes a sense of a life in danger of fading away, of a young man casually slipping the bonds of compassion and responsibility.
The Seventh Fire clocks in at 78 minutes, but its scope is epic; it appears to jump months and even years. Other figures drift in and out of Rob and Kevin’s lives: girlfriends, children, fellow gang members, social workers. At times we’re unsure of the specific relations between characters, because Riccobono often eschews context. A brief, murmured snatch of dialogue might sometimes give us a crucial bit of info — but only if we actually hear it. At times we wonder if critical moments have gone missing. But the effect is not so much confusion as unsteadiness — as if we’ve found ourselves on a boat that has lost its moorings. The film keeps us awake, aware and uncertain, not a bad frame of mind in which to absorb these men’s likely tragic lives. It would be enthralling cinema if it weren’t just so unimaginably sad.