‘Northern Lights’ film casts light on early prairie politics

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“My daughter forgot my birthday,” said director Rob Nilsson, laughing when I met him at Babette Cafe for an interview coincidentally on his 74th birthday. “That’s the first time that happened! I was waiting for her to wish me. We hung up … and then she called me right back of course.”

Clad in a brown leather jacket and with silvery hair, Nilsson, a co-director of “Northern Lights” (1978), is soft-spoken yet gives off a certain vibe that suggests you’ve known him your whole life. He looks you in the eyes directly when he speaks, holding this gaze when he listens as well. This personal intensity and focus he exudes is similar to his directorial approach.

“Northern Lights,” the winner of the 1979 Camera d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, will be shown at the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive on Nov. 7. It chronicles the hardships of North Dakota farmers in the early 20th century, telling the fictionalized story of Ray Sorenson (Robert Behling) and the challenges he faces as he bravely travels the prairie, persuading landowners to join the Nonpartisan League, a socialist political entity. The issues brought up in the film — prairie politics and the importance of family — are issues close to Nilsson’s heart.

“My grandfather was the first filmmaker in North Dakota, and my mother was born there, so there is, of course, a personal attachment with the movie,” Nilsson said. “We show small farmers and homesteads. There is a personal level to the politics.”

It is largely this personal element that makes “Northern Lights” come alive. The film includes some of the most hauntingly intimate images: celebrations at a modest family dinner, a melancholy winter funeral, prairie lands that are silent save for the whistling of chilly wind.

“We wanted to do something with a local focus rather than something with an emphasis on abstraction,” he said. “There is something to be said about a movie that deals with human capacity rather than one that is overintellectualized.”

Nilsson listed Gaspar Noe’s “Irreversible” (2002) and Mike Figgis’ “Timecode” (2000) as movies that primarily take the human experience into consideration instead of kowtowing to some vague, generalized, ideological concern. He also named “Enter the Void” (2009) and “Y Tu Mama Tambien” (2001) as good examples.

“Some of these movies are examinations of violence, sex — a netherworld of the mind’s construction that is unrelenting, scary,” he said. “Those Latino guys are on it!”

Though he acknowledges “Northern Lights” may not have the same effect on viewers, he does speak about his film in a similarly dramatic manner.

“We (himself and co-director John Hanson) knew about the story of North Dakota,” he said. “God is suddenly gone to this group of people. Then what do you do with human instinct and contradictory aspects of humanity?”

“Northern Lights” details this drama of what Nilsson calls “a horrendous chapter in our history.” In making a movie that moved toward the documentation of American history, Nilsson was able to achieve his goal: to candidly, earnestly and honestly learn about others’ personal histories rather than try to shape a story out of nothing.

His interest in personal history has continued with an attentiveness to the homeless population in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district.

“My brother, Greg, disappeared some time ago,” he said. “I knew he was homeless, and I thought he might have ended up in the Tenderloin. I would drive through there sometimes. He was a paranoid-schizophrenic, homeless poet who wandered, eating plants and roots.”
Nilsson’s Tenderloin project, a 2008 nine-part feature film series titled “9 @ Night,” is a gritty real-world look at the lives of those who roam the streets of the rough district. Nilsson’s dedication to this effort, rooted in his own personal history, is commendable.

“I think inner intensity is as important as any political or cinematic aspect,” he said. “The human center is alive.”

Contact Addy Bhasin at [email protected].

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