At long last, Americans are starting to make movies about their own history, about the real West and the real people who struggle with its wilderness.

"Heartland," a saga of a Wyoming frontier family in 1910, had its premiere at the American Film Institute last night to kick off the New American Cinema series, nine pictures sponsored by AFI and the Independent Feature Project with help from the National Endowment for the Humanities.

The only actor most people will know is Rip Torn, who offers his usual quietly magnificent performance as the dour Clyde Stewart, the hardbitten rancher with a fading but stubborn Scottish accent. Conchata Ferrell plays Elinor Stewart, the pioneer woman whose diaries inspired the film, and Lilia Skala is a sturdy neighbor. A young girl named Megan Folsom does about the most convincing smart, pigtailed 7-year-old ever seen on any screen.

What a picture. You can almost sell the cold, clear air of the Montana highlands where the film was shot. Your hands almost brush against the rough-sawn board walls of the house out there in the middle of that rolling savannah. It is real, the snow is real, the birth of a calf is real, the people are real. This movie has the juice of life in it. It is about birth and death and marriage -- a charming praire wedding with the bride still in her apron and work boots and the shy neighbors dancing on the unforgiving ground.

It is also funny, from Stewart's somewhat eccentric marriage proposal to the little girl's trusting relationship with the grizzled hired man.

"I can't talk to that man," Ferrell mutters to the crusty neighbor woman when they are out feeding the hens at a cattle branding session. "You better learn before winter," snaps the neighbor.

Like two others in this series, this film has already been picked up by a distributor and will open in New York in August before coming here in the fall. However, five of the nine will be shown at the Inner Circle through June 25, including "Day after Trinity," which recently aired on TV, "Impostors," "Killer of Sheep," "The Haunting of M" and "The Whole Shootin' Match."

The five will then travel to San Francisco, Houston, New Orleans and Atlanta.

Last night, Beth Ferris, co-producer with Michael Hausman, spoke before the showing. As the screenwriter, Ferris said she had obtained five years of funding from NEH for this work, part of a projected series on women in the early West."Heartland" was directed by Richard Pierce.

Most of the supporting cast, Ferris added, were Montanans whose parents had gone through the same hard life, battling more or less singlehandedly against Montana weather.

At the reception, Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) and his son, Zeno, met Skala and talked about the rigors of shooting film in such a place. Baucus has seen the picture before, he said, and, if anything, it is better the second time.

"The people of Montana will love it, I'm sure of that," he said. "I hope the cities will like it too."