Poverty isn’t so much a systemic problem in The Seventh Fire as it is a means for director Jack Pettibone Riccobono to sympathize with a handful of individuals living on the White Earth Indian Reservation in Minnesota. Much like 2014’s Rich Hill, the documentary aims to shine a light on the destitute conditions of a community afflicted by drug use and a lack of economic and educational resources. Pettibone Riccobono primarily focuses on the relationship between Rob, a fortysomething gang leader and drug dealer, and Kevin, his 17-year-old would-be protégée, by offering their plights as generational extensions of one another, with Kevin emulating Rob in hopes of one day assuming his position. Problem is, Rob has been sentenced to his fifth prison term, which leaves Kevin’s immediate future uncertain.
Pettibone Riccobono refrains from indulging in either Kevin or Rob’s decidedly macho behaviors or slickly aestheticizing them for the pleasures of an audience far removed from this realm, but the director does make a fundamentally detrimental mistake by lingering with his subjects as they snort cocaine and other drugs, giving their actions a scary-exciting dimension that merely caters to the exploitative tenets of any hackneyed iteration of poverty porn. Pettibone Riccobono shows their drug use from plate to nose as Rob and Kevin cut and snort their way through several lines, inviting us to pityingly stare at their condition. With an intense focus on immediacy and realism, there’s nary a moment where the scene isn’t meant explicitly, and singularly, for gazing upon their self-destructive behaviors.
That pursuit is masked by an overtly familiar form of humanist abstraction that renders poverty a mysterious entity instead of a curable malady of systemic exclusion. In effect, by placing the emphasis on Rob’s guilt about trafficking drugs into his community, the doc tritely identifies him as a problem case and bad role model, rather than making larger sense of his position within a reservation that wants for basic human resources, let alone the comparable spoils of middle-class life. When a fight breaks out at a party and drunken neighbors throw fists and hurl epithets, Pettibone Riccobono is content to revel in the thick of it, even moving the camera to follow a distraught woman as she curses and hurtles away from the melee. A scene or two later, when winter sets in, slow-motion tracking shots capture the landscape, making more readily apparent the filmmaker’s interest in exploiting and mythologizing the reservation’s visible conditions.
That combination becomes especially loathsome during a late scene of children singing bible songs in church, playing out as an unintentionally morbid gesture of ironic deference to a religious order. When the kids sing “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the bible tells me so,” it’s a disingenuous snap at spiritual dogma that the film makes little effort to resolve. Such is often the problem with this sort of documentary mode, which resigns itself to an ethnographic exploration of a given community, but does so without any form of contextualizing or disorienting measures. The end result leads to moments without commentary, as when a woman states that “some guys like it better in prison.” Freed from any means to test that hypothesis, The Seventh Fire lets it slide as an irreversible truth of any life faced with unceasing hardship.