Jul 22, 2016
Smoke Signals: The Seventh Fire
The Seventh Fire
Directed by Jack Pettibone Riccobono
Opens July 22 at the Metrograph
An achingly grim look at career-criminal culture flourishing in a vacuum of opportunities, the documentary The Seventh Fire sets down in a place called Pine Point, “P-Town” for short, a poor, sparsely populated settlement on the southern edge of Minnesota’s White Earth Indian Reservation. The film, which condenses a few years’ worth of footage into a fairly short 75 minutes, shadows two lifelong residents of this forlorn township, both of them members of the Ojibwe tribe: Rob, a barrel-chested drug dealer headed for his fifth stint behind bars, and Kevin, a still-impressionable teenager who a few years back started to follow in Rob’s footsteps. Early in the film, Kevin’s father, who himself earns money by catching leeches and selling them for bait, ballparks the odds that a Pine Point youth goes on to prosper outside the meth-riddled reservation: “Just one out of ten every ten years will make it out here.”
The Seventh Fire—directed by first-timer Jack Pettibone Riccobono, but “presented by” Terrence Malick and executive-produced by Natalie Portman—shows revolving-door incarceration as something that is, at this point, practically an inheritance passed down from one generation to the next. Indeed, the only municipal resource this shamefully neglected community seems to have is the pint-size water tower that nonetheless looms over the level landscape. The residents have even improvised their own methods of garbage disposal: A couple of the film’s more evocative images capture the thick black smoke rising from possessions people have decided they no longer have any use for and have thus lit on fire—in one instance an easy chair, and in another the husk of a stripped car’s chassis. But that’s not to suggest that The Seventh Fire sets out to aestheticize these hardscrabble conditions. For one thing, Riccobono often relies on cellphone-camera-grade video to convey a matter-of-fact sense of what goes on at indoor parties, during which the occasional blurred-out face appears among the topsy-turvy drinking, smoking, and snorting.
It’s often difficult to identify who’s who here, given the large number of peripheral figures who appear and the film’s forgoing of any on-screen titles whatsoever, but Kevin and Rob gradually do come into sharp focus as conflicted individuals. At one point, the latter gives a wryly dramatic reading of his own rap sheet in front of his lawyer, reading over his history of abuse, as well as a description of his facility as a writer, like these were biographical details belonging to someone else entirely. Right after Kevin emerges from a treatment center late in the film, his apprehension about returning to his old way of life in Pine Point is evident in the way he nervously turns over a brochure he was given upon his release. In short, Riccobono’s film is too well-observed to portray either man as a hopeless case. The tragedy here is that they don’t always see it that way themselves.