Northern Lights

By Sharon Carson

By the time you read the June issue of Prairie Independent, voters in Wisconsin will have decided whether or not to recall Governor Scott Walker in the wake of his aggressive legislative attacks on public employee unions, public education, and critical social services. The Wisconsin vote on June 5th will be historic on many levels, not least as a plumb measure of the current strength of progressive grassroots political organizing in the Midwest.

Waiting around after all the election field work is done can be nerve-wracking. Good time to watch a movie.

Northern Lights remains a deservedly famous film shaped around progressive North Dakota political history. It won the Golden Camera Best First Feature Award at the Cannes Film Festival in 1979 and though the movie is currently only available in VHS or 35 mm print, it’s well worth the effort to track it down. Check your public or university libraries, check the movie shelves of friends, or invite the filmmakers and their 35 mm print to town.

The movie is set in Crosby, North Dakota circa 1915-16, during the organizing heyday of the Nonpartisan League. Written and directed by John Hanson and Rob Nilsson, with stunning photography directed by Judy Irola, Northern Lights sweeps across landscape and light while framing the story of immigrant Norwegian farmers who join the Nonpartisan League and organized its early successes. T he film was partially funded by the North Dakota Humanities Council, which in 1981 also put out a companion book, A Humanities Guide to Northern Lights, full of historical context, critiques of the movie, discussion questions and a complete film script.

Henry Martinson, a long-haul North Dakota activist and writer who died in 1981, narrates the opening sequence of the film, moving us back in time to a primary campaign where economically struggling North Dakota farmers fought back against exploitation by big mills and the banks. Hard economic times, but as Martinson says: “Good times, too. Almost forgotten by most folks. Times that we had the powers that be on the run.”

Clay Jenkinson edited and wrote much of the Northern Lights companion book, and he invokes the weather to set up his essay on the history of the NPL: “Like a prairie thunderstorm the Nonpartisan League burst into life in 1916, changed the face of North Dakota, then flickered away into the night, with only a low rumble and an occasional glow of lightning to remind us of its former power.” In that rumble, the NPL and other progressive organizers of the era left North Dakota with a state bank, a state mill, and better protections (at least for a time) for labor and voting rights.

R ay Sorenson is the central fictional character in Northern Lights, an uprooted farmer turned NPL organizer. At one point, he says of his brother John, another struggling farmer who has resisted joining the League: “He thought he could get along without choosing sides just as I once had.” In the plotline of the film, not to mention the plotline of actual historical events, this political reticence proved a costly mistake.

Clearly, our northland neighbors in Wisconsin know this too, as underscored by massive protests last year in Madison and by the almost one million citizens who signed the petitions supporting the recall vote.

Ray and the other NPL characters in the film confront “the powers that be” by working the ballot in order to fight back against economic practices destroying their farms, livelihoods and communities. In the film, as in Wisconsin and elsewhere around the country this year, the stakes are clear: Can citizens exert electoral power to move society toward more social fairness or less, toward more economic justice or less, toward more civil equality or less?

T he struggle in the film is painted in stark and mythic brushstrokes, and some might (and did) say that Northern Lights is politically “romantic.” For example, the film doesn’t follow historical events into later implosions caused by infighting within the NPL nor does it illuminate political setbacks that followed close upon these early NPL victories.

But Robert W. Lewis, longtime literature professor at UND and intrepid citizen, offers another take in a beautifully written piece called “The Power of Northern Lights,” also available in the Humanities Council book.

Lewis starts this way: “If there is one key word to provide a thematic focus on Northern Lights, it is, for me, power. Every episode, every encounter among the characters, is informed by great or subtle struggles, and in the resolution of them, the film generates epic feelings in spite of the common origins and occupations of the characters.”

As Lewis also reminds us in his essay, struggles for political power are endless in a functioning democracy. Victories for social and economic justice can be long lasting or short lived. Defeats, the same. Either way, election results always set the stage for even more work.

At the end of Northern Lights, Ray Sorenson leaves his foreclosed farm and takes to the road, heading out to organize for the NPL in the wake of their 1916 electoral victories. His lines: “Who can say what is coming next, but win or lose, I have a part in it. I have a place.”

That’s good anti-romantic movie talk, and good anti-romantic political talk too.

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