Northern Lights, co-directed by John Hanson and Rob Nilsson, attempts to blur the line between its historical fiction and documentary. Blending actors and nonprofessionals, it brings an achingly beautiful black-and-white immediacy to the American past and creates a stirring ode to the American labor movement. In the fierce North Dakota winter clime of the 1910s, farmers find themselves discounted by politicians and set upon by foreclosing bankers. The grain they work hard to harvest—in a snowstorm, no less, in one of the film’s most amazing passages—is sold for processing to grain elevators; the banks and railroad that control these pay exceptionally little. Thus the farmers unionize, in the Nonpartisan League. One of the organizers envisions their cooperatively owning their own grain elevators and becoming shareholders in state-chartered banks. Northern Lights, then, depicts the daunting circumstances the farmers face and the countervailing efforts of these new pioneers. It documents the retaliation they endure from the current institutions arrayed against their attempts at social change. It finds in dark, drafty rooms sparse though glowing light—a persistent symbol of hope. The narrative unfolds as the reminiscence of one of the League’s organizers. It is framed in the present. Sadly, the ringing optimism of the tail-end of this narrative frame would soon be erased by the pathological presidency of Ronald Reagan, and so, in our minds, we must add another coda to Northern Lights, however much doing so breaks our hearts. There is a spirit to this film that’s irresistible —and, in the extended context of the crippling of unionism in America, which Reagan launched but which considerable mismanagement by unions themselves abetted, this joyful spirit assumes a tragic dimension. —Dennis Grunes
Rob Nilsson is an independent director, based in San Francisco. Nilsson and co-director, John Hanson, won the Camera d’Or at Cannes for Northern Lights (1978) and Nilsson won the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival for Heat and Sunlight (1987). He is the first American film director to have won both awards. In 2010, The Anthology Film Archive featured a retrospective of Nilsson’s work with Cine Manifest, a Marxist film collective he co-founded in San Francisco during the 1970’s. Works screened included Northern Lights (1978) and Signal Seven (1986).
He is also the creator of the Direct Action style of digital filmmaking taught in the Tenderloin yGroup Actor’s Ensemble, San Francisco and featured in workshops conducted around the world. Nilsson is a pioneer in the techniques of video to film transfer which led to today’s digital revolution. In 1985, Signal Seven (1986) was the first small-format video feature to be blown up to film and distributed around the world… read more