'The Seventh Fire' burns bright

Rob Brown and Kevin Fineday Jr.

Rob Brown and Kevin Fineday Jr.

Pine Point is only 200 miles northwest of Minneapolis, but it’s so insular it might as well be its own country. Part of the White Earth Indian Reservation, it boasts a population of 338. One resident opines that only a few lucky souls venture out of Pine Point to make a better life for themselves every decade or so.

The two subjects of Jack Pettibone Riccobono’s documentary The Seventh Fire, an adult named Rob Brown and a teenager named Kevin Fineday Jr., are unlikely to be among them.

“It’s always gonna be the same,” Kevin says of Pine Point a few minutes into the film, lest you entertain the notion that The Seventh Fire might contain any moments of uplift. He also uses the word “opportunity” a lot, mostly to point out the lack of any. This is a depressed community, with little in the way of an economy but a few couches and cars on fire in the middle of the street for no apparent reason.

Rob and Kevin’s tribal/gang tattoos are like pieces of a puzzle that don’t come together to form a clearer picture. Both are stunted by their surroundings, and neither feels like a complete person yet. Riccobono’s approach is observational to the extreme, with no voiceover or onscreen text lending context to the vérité proceedings.

We’re not sure of the precise nature of their relationship, though the elder does offer sage advice: If you’re going to risk your freedom by breaking the law, make sure the reward is worth it. “It usually isn’t,” he quickly clarifies — less a warning not to commit a crime and more an acknowledgement that he feels powerless to stop himself despite knowing the consequences.

The Seventh Fire was executive-produced by Terrence Malick, the media-averse auteur whose The New World bears a superficial resemblance to Riccobono’s documentary in its focus on the Native American experience. The two movies are like drastically different sides of the same worn coin. Malick’s looks to America’s creation myth and Pocahontas, while Riccobono’s demystifies daily life for a subset of the Ojibwe community.

“I haven’t been law-abiding lately,” Rob will later add in an offhand, semi-confessional tone. Watching this man, who’s self-aware enough to know he’s on a downward trajectory but lacks the wherewithal to change course, doesn’t make for easy viewing. He speaks of years spent behind bars in a disarmingly casual manner, the way others might describe an unpleasant weekend visit with a relative. It’s treated as a fact of existence, not something to avoid but something to get over with and take in stride.

Most of this revolves around meth, which Riccobono’s subjects likewise discuss — and make, and consume — on camera like it’s nothing. Rob and Kevin are both affiliated with the Native Gangster Disciples, an organization whose ranks Kevin hopes to ascend.

That’s ultimately the saddest part — there are no teary-eyed breakdowns or moments of grand revelation in The Seventh Fire, just an utter lack of hope for a better future. Their collective myopia is both a hindrance and a defense mechanism. Only when he’s back in prison for the fifth time after a brief furlough does Rob have a moment of clarity, but by then it’s too little too late. He’s made it out of Pine Point, but this is hardly a new life.

The Seventh Fire
Directed by Jack Pettibone Riccobono
Opens Friday, MSP Film Society