Life on northern Minnesota’s White Earth Indian Reservation is sometimes romanticized as a tranquil, traditional landscape of lakes and woodlands. Yet it is shown with disquieting realism in director Jack Pettibone Riccobono’s challenging documentary of the setting’s tribal drug use and gang culture.
While many nonfiction chronicles focus more on community policies than their personal impact, Riccobono’s tale of damaged lives is deeply intimate. A potent combination of cinema verite, humanism and social activism, it was presented at a special White House screening in March.
The film is a fascinating look at the culture’s legacy of incarceration, addiction and recidivism, captured without interviews or narrative exposition. It simply and directly shows us things that deserve our attention.
After five prison sentences, American Indian drug kingpin Rob Brown is nearing his 40s with regret over the plight he has caused in his Ojibwe homestead. His successor might be Kevin Fineday, an ambitious rising gang star still in his teens. He seems more precocious than dangerous, at least at this point.
Each presents himself with his full measure of humanity alongside his worryingly deep flaws. Each triggers significant despair but deserves a measure of guarded optimism. They are presented much like Riccobono’s unsettling yet warm exploration of the tribal community itself. It is a place where poverty, glimmers of hope and happiness somehow exist side by side, and drug recovery programs center on study and regard for indigenous heritage.
The rural young adults who are the subjects of the film allowed the director to graphically film their lives for 2½ years, capturing touching personal conversations and baby care, gang firearm shooting practice and snorting multiple lines of cocaine.
The images of tribal dances, abandoned homes, wind-whipped grain fields and personal possessions set ablaze are often stunningly composed. Made over 14 shoots in the span of six years, the film is officially presented by the visionary perfectionist filmmaker Terrence Malick and produced by Natalie Portman.
It’s a portrait of abuse that rarely receives fly-on-the-wall attention so stylistically polished, inquisitive and intimately reported.