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Am T A COST of less than $2 million, Where the Rivers Flow North is not erely a marvel of economy; it is a prodigy of regional art. The region is a remote section of Vermont, the harshly gorgeous country known as the Northeast Kingdom; he must be a Spartan monarch. Adapted from Vermonter Howard Frank Mosher’s 1978 novel by Green Mountain screenwriters Jay Craven and Don Bredes, the film was shot on location by and with mostly local talent. It was financed largely by small investments from hundreds of neighbors and contributions from Vermont businesses, including Ben and Jerry’s, the socially conscious ice cream company. The project was one of only two \(the other was Texan Eagle Pennell’s to receive a $35,000 film grant from the NEA in 1991. The loyalty of Vermonters, including Treat Williams and Michael J. Fox, who own homes in the area, enabled the production to cut corners and 165,000 feet of celluloid. Governor Howard Dean served as an extra, Senator Frank Leahy as a patron. Set in 1927, Where the Rivers Flow North tells the story of Noel Lord \(Rip fuses to relinquish his lease so that, by flooding 10,000 acres, Northern Power can build the largest hydroelectric dam in the United States. Lord is as stubborn as producer Bess O’Brien and her coproducer/co-writer/director-husband Craven must have been to get their movie made. A wily coot with long white mane, a hook for a left hand and a powerful enough right hook to floor a younger man in a village prizefight, he rejects increasingly munificent attempts to buy him out. Torn’s Lord is a Yankee variation on Richard Harris in The Field, the Irish curmudgeon who is utterly obdurate about a plot of land. The plot of Where the Rivers is sufficiently complex to keep us from idolizing Lord, who fells 100 protected pines, as an environmental hero. But more impressive than its storyline is its attention to the quotidian details of life on the edge of the woods and the verge of turning modern making cedar oil, rhubarb pie and enough money to splurge on an occasional piece of store-bought cloth. Even more extraordinary is its shaping of two lead characters and their relationship. Cree/Metis Tantoo Cardinal, a veteran of Dances with Wolves, is cast as Bangor, Lord’s longtime companion, in what is billed as “the first-ever leading role for a Native American actress in a theatrically released American feature film.” More remarkable is how she endows with grace a vibrant crone with missing teeth and broken English who is forever singing, humming or chattering. Anthony Quinn, originally set to play Lord, compared the script to Fellini’s La Strada; Cardinal’s Bangor is, like Giulietta Masina, a miracle of guileless energy. Obtained as a housekeeper by the loggerwhom she addresses as “Mister,” referring to herself as “she”in exchange for whiskey 25 years ago, she has become something more indispensable and rankling to her Lord of a sylvan aerie. Independently produced by Caledonia Pictures, a Vermont company formed to “capture the memorable characters, relentless struggles and resilient spirit of the region,” Where the Rivers Flow North is also being independently marketed and distributed, which means that screenings began slowly in New England before spreading elsewhere. The film opens at Houston’s Greenway Theater on Sept. 23. It ought to open the eyes of viewers anywhere to the possibilities of drawing inspiration and expression from their own rivers. CLASSIFIEDS ORGANIZATIONS WORK for single-payer National Health Care. Join GRAY PANTHERS, intergenerational advocates against ageism and for progressive policies promoting social and economic justice. $20 individual, $35 family. 3710 458-3738. 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