Set against the backdrop of a town’s annual snowmobile race, Northern Light interweaves captivating stories of recession-era America. The lives of three families change profoundly in the north woods of Michigan, where winters are unforgiving, jobs are hard to come by, and the line between living life and merely surviving is razor-thin.
This is a cinematic, observational documentary that explores the American working class experience through character-based storytelling. As racers and their families pin their hopes to a 500 mile-long test of endurance, small triumphs and giant sacrifices are made along the way.
Dysfunction and hardship permeate the cold, but this harsh setting often becomes an incubator for community and familial intimacy. Northern Light explores this disparity through the eyes of remarkably strong men and women, their stories told in richly styled portraiture. From a frozen corner of the country emerge three American families.
The Upper Peninsula of Michigan means a great deal to me. My father grew up in Saint Ignace, and my family has lived there for five generations. I’ve always been fascinated by the region’s frozen landscape and the lifestyle it fosters.
I spent two years in Michigan filming Northern Light. My filmmaking partner, Lisa Kjerulff, and I began photographing three families who were about to compete in the Sault Ste. Marie I-500, an annual snowmobile race in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.
This race was unlike anything we’d ever seen–a rich and dramatic community gathering and an undeniably cinematic spectacle. Snowmobiles hurtled at breakneck speeds around a mile-long oval track of pure ice for 500 miles. A crowd of thousands stood on giant hills of snow, transfixed throughout the morning and into the freezing night. We quickly discovered that beyond the loud, explosive action of this race was a community marked by genuine devotion and hard work–breakfasts before dawn, prayers before dinner, and naps after the night shift.
We continued to film after the race, capturing intimate portraits of these families as they were making it through the day. As we kept filming, the effects of the financial crisis took hold of the country, and the lives of Walt, Marie, Emily & Isaac and their families began to change profoundly.
We became captivated by their dramatic and unexpected stories. We decided to craft an observational film that tracks the intertwining lives of these three families–no interviews, no explanations, just the drama of life unfolding in the present tense.
We stayed in each family’s home and cooked dinners together. We shared many warm holidays. Emily, Isaac, Walt, Becky, Nick and Marie and their families invited us into their lives with a level of trust and honesty that still amazes me. They allowed us to create an emotional film that immerses the viewer in the changing lives of working class Americans.
Throughout the production of this film, I was humbled by the stubborn work-ethic of the families I came to know. Walt woke before dawn to drive his eighteen-wheeler to Alabama, Texas, and Pennsylvania. In the span of a single day, Marie worked the early shift at Walmart, picked up extra hours as a cleaning lady, cooked dinner for her children, and studied for her exams late into the night.
The families of rural Michigan are the inheritors of pioneers and homesteaders; ruggedly independent and determined, living with hope in an unforgiving environment and retaining a spirit of self-reliance I can know only by example. I’m amazed by the footage we’ve captured–its quality not created by any technique, but found, in the genuine and generous nature of three compelling American families. I’m proud to have shared this experience with them.
Nick Bentgen is a Brooklyn-based Director / Cinematographer. He was selected for IFP & Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Emerging Visions Program at the 2011 New York Film Festival.
As a DP, Nick lensed Matt Wolf’s new documentary, Teenage (Tribeca 2013 / Hot Docs 2013) and Daniel Carbone’s feature narrative, Hide Your Smiling Faces (Berlin 2013 / Tribeca 2013).
Nick has directed commercials (New York City Ballet, Swarovski), music videos (Small Black, Pitchfork’s Juan’s Basement), and contributed to installations (Matt Keegan, I [Apple] NY). He has photographed spots for Apple, Friends of the Highline, Google and American Express.
Lisa Kjerulff has produced over twenty commercial doc pieces for New York City Ballet, and completed the documentary Americans In Paris: New York City Ballet on Tour.
Lisa has produced music videos (Small Black, Devendra Banhart) as well as commercial spots for Microsoft, Swarovski, Kiehl’s, Macy’s, American Express, Trident, Smirnoff, and many others. She has produced for several agencies and production companies including JWT, BBDO, Heist Projects, Ghost Robot and Plus Et Plus.
FUNDING & PROGRESS
Northern Light is completed and screening at festivals around the world. Please sign up for our updates to find out about screenings near you!
This film was funded solely through donations from individuals like you. Last June, almost 200 donors generously contributed to our Kickstarter campaign, raising over $29,000 to complete Northern Light. Thanks to them!
Northern Light was a selection of the 2011 IFP Documentary Labs, IFP’s 2010 & 2011 Spotlight on Documentaries, and the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s 2011 Emerging Visions Program.
Northern Light was made with support from the Independent Filmmaker Project.
- Nick Bentgen
- Lisa Kjerulff
- Tom Kelly & Gregory Reardon
- Amelia & Jon Hughes
- Yoonha Park
- Additional Editor
- Saela Davis
- Saunder Jurriaans and Danny Bensi
- Still Photographer
- Anna Rose Holmer
- Additional I-500 Photography
- Paul Yee & Anna Rose Holmer
- Sound Design (teaser)
- Mark Phillips
- Site Design
- Ian Crowther for Familiar
- Web Video Loops
- Dan Kelly