John Hanson and Rob Nilsson's arresting Prairie Trilogy, a feature-length assemblage of three shorts created in the late 1970s, capture the moment when the history of Dakota socialism was fading from memory, a time when even some of the old-timers who once fought for farmers were now griping about people on welfare. Survivor and Rebel Earth find 97-year-old Henry Martinson — a homesteader, organizer, painter, editor of a socialist paper and his state's poet laureate — looking back on a lifetime of pushing for a change that only once seemed like it was truly here, with the 1918 electoral victory of the Nonpartisan League. That triumph gets cast as epochal, even fabulistic, in the fleet docu-collage Prairie Fire, a bracing history narrated by Martinson and featuring jaunty folky labor songs, a host of archival photos and priceless footage of plains life shot between 1915 and 1921 by Frithjof Holmboe, co-director Nilsson's grandfather.
Prairie Fire is a hoot, a joy, a thrill, rich with local color and indelible plains photography. Survivor and Rebel Earth, by contrast, are elegiac, but often joyously so. Both find Martinson engaged in that great Midwestern project of "visiting" -- sitting around with the people he knows and gabbing about how things were and what they're becoming. Above all else they swap stories. One jewel turns on Martinson's certainty that if the cop who hauled him away during a raid on the Wobblies back in the 1910s had needed to carry Martinson just one more block, the chatty activist might have won him over to the cause.