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Lois Jenson says `North Country' gets the story right



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Lois Jenson didn't want a movie to be made of her life. Then she visited the set of "North Country" and began to change her mind.

Before filming began on Minnesota's Iron Range in February, she opposed the movie because she's not a fan of "Class Action," the nonfiction book that inspired the "North Country" script. She declined to sell her life story to the producers of the film and, in general, she says with a chuckle, "I gave them a lot of crap."

Even so, "North Country" director Niki Caro contacted her last fall to find out her concerns about the movie, a fictionalized account of how Jenson and other female miners came to file a sexual harassment lawsuit against Eveleth Mines.

"Since that time, they've been very gracious and generous with their time, answering questions for me and listening to my concerns," says Jenson, who lives in Babbitt, Minn.

The movie, which stars Charlize Theron playing a character based on Jenson, opens nationwide Friday.

One concern Jenson and other women involved in the Jenson v. Eveleth Mines lawsuit discussed with Caro was how the movie would treat its male characters. In real life, some male miners sexually assaulted and abused female co-workers, but others were supportive of them and tried to help, something the book didn't address and the women worried the movie wouldn't show.

"(The moviemakers) listened to us and got in some good guys. You get to see that some of these men didn't want to be in these situations, and they also didn't know how to deal with it," Jenson says. "The core issue, I think, is it's not men versus women. It's individuals trying to figure it out. You know, good people are good people, but they do bad things, and bad people do good things."

On that point, Jenson found a sympathetic ear in Caro.

"I was not interested in doing a movie that said women are good and men are bad, because I know that not to be true," the director says.

Caro and her cast met with several women involved in the suit, some of whom ended up in the movie. A couple appear in a courtroom scene near the end of "North Country," and the late Pat Kosmach, who was the first woman to join Jenson in the suit, is represented in the film by her daughter, Bonnie Vincent. An extra, she can be seen behind Theron at a hockey game.

Jenson is not in the movie, but she spent time on the set in Eveleth. "I observed a scene at the Hippodrome (ice arena), a hockey scene, and I liked what I saw. I met all the stars and actually had a chance to speak with Charlize Theron," she says.

"Lois was extremely helpful to me and Niki," Theron says. "Talking to her gave me so much in terms of figuring out the complexities of the character."

Jenson says that's evident from Theron's performance. "There were uncomfortable moments - the subject matter is pretty intense - and (Theron) was definitely looking uncomfortable in those moments," she says. "I'm close to the true story, but I'm hoping and I do think other people will understand how difficult it must have been to be artistic and to tell this story."

Or to have lived it. Jenson says it was strange to watch a movie that resembled her story - and the story of the other female miners who were part of the class-action suit - but that also diverged from it. "Charlize Theron is playing me, but she's not playing me," Jenson says. "I'm not sure how to say it."

Actually, that's probably the best way to say it. Theron's character, Josey Aimes, is similar to Jenson: Both are single mothers; both have been sexually assaulted; both find work in the male-dominated taconite mines of Minnesota's Iron Range; both file lawsuits that establish precedents in U.S. courts' treatment of sexual harassment. But there are differences.

"Watching it, there were certain things that felt familiar," Jenson says. "But it was like watching someone else. There is an opening scene (Josey being beaten by her boyfriend at their home) that is not my experience, and there are a couple others that are not my experiences, but they demonstrate an overall picture of why these women in the mines were so vulnerable."

Screenwriter Michael Seitzman says the story is largely fictional and the characters are composites, but he followed one rule when he was writing scenes that took place in the mine: "All of the abuse in the movie had to have happened in real life for me to put it in the script."

Jenson says it may take awhile for the movie to sink in. "I don't like to take liberties and speak for the other women, but they had concerns as well, and, from what I've seen, I think (the movie people) listened," Jenson says. "I was very impressed by the movie, but I want to see it again before I make any final comments on it."

In the meantime, her preliminary review of "North Country" is the kind of rave that movie studios like to splash all over ads: "At the end, you feel terrific. You know you've seen something important, and you know you've seen something that's going to be around a long time."

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(c) 2005, St. Paul Pioneer Press (St. Paul, Minn.). Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.

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