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Northern Lights


Compared to some states, North Dakota can only claim a short list of feature-length films. Today, Wooly Boys and Fargo are arguably the most widely-recognized, but that wasn't always the case. On this date in 1982, Americans outside of the upper plains were treated to the first viewing of Northern Lights.

A 90-minute work of historical fiction, Northern Lights dramatizes the struggles encountered by farmers who settled in western North Dakota, using the rise of the Nonpartisan League as the backdrop.

The film was written, directed and produced by North Dakota natives John Hanson and Rob Nilsson; funded in part by the North Dakota Humanities Council and Prairie Public. Working with a tiny budget of $300,000, the movie was filmed in Crosby, North Dakota using only a few professional actors mixed with local talent.

The film is framed as a project of 94-year old Henry Martinson, a real-life player in North Dakota's NPL movement and grandfather of writer and producer, John Hanson. In the movie, Martinson finds the diary of Ray Sorenson describing the harsh winter of 1915-1916. Unlike Martinson, Ray Sorenson is a completely fictional character.

Using the journal, Martinson spins a tale of the past. The story opens in March of 1915. The usual economic and political burdens endured by farmers had become crushing, and banks foreclosed on farm after farm. Out of the unrest, an agrarian reform movement with links to socialism took root. Ray Sorenson hears rumbles of this growing reform movement, but skeptical of their promises and busy with daily life, he initially pays little attention. Besides, he has more important things on his mind, like proposing marriage to his sweetheart, Inga. But after the death of his father and the mortgage foreclosure on Inga's family farm, Ray sees the Nonpartisan League in a different light. He joins the movement, travelling across the state on behalf of the NPL. As the radical organization gains popularity, influencing state elections and reform legislation, Ray admits, "we felt, for the first time in our lives, powerful." But there were no happy endings for Ray Sorenson. He drifts away from Inga and creditors finally force him to move on.

Completed in 1978, the film, Northern Lights, took a unique journey to international acclaim. Following the world-premiere in Crosby, the movie travelled across the state before making its way to a film festival in Belgrade, Yugoslavia. Receiving European exposure, the filmmakers were invited to the Cannes Film Festival in 1979. Much to everyone's surprise, Northern Lights won the Golden Camera Award for best first feature. The movie soon made the rounds on European television, but it would take several more years before Americans nationwide were treated to the fictional film made by and about the people of North Dakota.

Written by Christina Sunwall

Anderegg, Michael. "The Fiction Film as Artifact: History, Image and Meaning in "Northern Lights"." North Dakota History 57, no. 3 (Summer 1990): 14-23.

Dempsey, Michael. ""Northern Lights": An Interview with John Hanson and Rob Nilsson." Film Quarterly 32, no. 4 (July 1979): 2-10.

"Northern Lights (1978)", Internet Movie Database http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0078008/.

O'Connor, John J. "TV: North Dakota Farmers' Movement " The New York Times (March 30, 1982).

Schneider, Steve. "Cable TV Notes; Chapters of the Immigrant Experience." The New York Times August 4, 1985.