Rob Nilsson’s Biography

ROB NILSSON- A San Francisco based director, Rob Nilsson and co-director John Hanson won the Camera d’Or at Cannes for NORTHERN LIGHTS (1979) and Nilsson won the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival for HEAT AND SUNLIGHT (1988).  He is the first American film director to have won both awards.  He is also the creator of the Direct Action style of digital filmmaking taught in the Tenderloin yGroup Actor’s Ensemble, San Francisco, the Citizen Cinema Player’s Ensemble, Berkeley, and featured in workshops conducted around the world.

Nilsson is a pioneer in the techniques of video to film transfer which led to today’s digital revolution.  In 1985 SIGNAL 7 was the first small format video feature to be blown up to film and distributed around the world.

CHALK, his first feature with the Tenderloin Action Group (later the Tenderloin yGroup) a San Francisco inner city acting workshop, was featured in the Locarno and Toronto film festivals and played in theatres around the country in 2000.  It was voted one of the top films of the year by the Village Voice and received critical acclaim in theatrical runs in several US cities.

Seven of Nilsson’s 9 @ NIGHT film series, nine Direct Action digital features cast from the yGroup, STROKE (2000), SINGING (2000), SCHEME C6 (2001), NEED (2004), PAN (2006), USED (2007) and GO TOGETHER (2007) had their World Premieres at the Mill Valley International Film Festival.  ATTITUDE had its World Premiere at the Hong Kong International Film Festival in 2003 and NOISE at the Virginia Film Festival in October, also in 2003.   The World Premiere of all 9 features was held at the Harvard Film Archives in 2007.  The series played in Bay Area theaters in 2008 and won the San Francisco Film Critic’s Circle Marlon Riggs Award, 2008.

In collaboration with studio malaparte in Japan, Nilsson completed a Direct Action digital feature film shot on Sagi Island off the coast of Hiroshima.  WINTER ORANGES had its world premiere in March, 2000 at the Fukuoka Film Archives in Fukuoka and its US Premiere at the Mill Valley International Film Festival in October 2000.

In September 2000, Nilsson shot another Direct Action digital feature (SAMT) in Jordan, working with a cast of young Jordanians assembled by ZENID, a Jordanian institute for social development.  SAMT had its world premiere at the Mill Valley Film Festival in 2004.

In November 2003 Nilsson, in conjunction with Resfest South Africa, shot FRANK DEAD SOULS,  a Direct Action digital feature shot in Cape Town locations with a cast selected from town and township, squatter camps and arts communities.

On September 11, 2005 the Pacific Film Archive hosted the World Premiere of SECURITY, a Direct Action feature film produced during a Nilsson residency at the U. of California, Berkeley.  SECURITY also won the Audience Award at the Green Cine Internet Film Festival.

On April 7, 2006 the Kansas City Filmmaker’s Jubilee presented OPENING, a Direct Action feature sponsored and produced in Kansas City by the festival, as its Opening Night film.

Nilsson has directed A TOWN HAS TURNED TO DUST, a feature film for the USA Channel from a script by Rod Serling.   Rob Nilsson’s film criticism has been featured on Ifilm and the Adobe Motion Channel and in a regular editorial column in RES, once the world’s leading magazine on digital filmmaking.

Nilsson is working on a book about film and received a Rockefeller Artist’s Grant in 2002. In recent  years retrospectives of Nilsson’s work have taken place at the Mill Valley Film Festival, the Pacific Film Archives, Berkeley, Chicago Institute of Art, Resfest, Seoul, Korea, Digital Talkies Festival, New Dehli, India, .MOV Festival and Cinemanila, Manila, Philippines, Hong Kong International Film Festival, the Kansas City Filmmaker’s Jubilee, the Syracuse International Film Festival, the Yerevan International Film Festival and the Moscow International Film Festival.

Lifetime awards include the Ted M. Larson Award from the Fargo International Film Festival, the Indie Pioneer Award from the Kansas City Filmmaker’s Jubilee, a Filmmaker of the Year award from the Silver Lake Film Festival, Los Angeles  the Milley Award from the city of Mill Valley for achievement in the Arts, the Master’s Award from the Yerevan Film Festival a Lifetime Achievement Award from the St. Louis International Film Festival and in 2012 the Mill Valley Film Award.

In 2008 the Filmmaker’s Alliance of Los Angeles presented him with the first annual Nilsson Award for excellence in the cinema an award which Nilsson now curates annually.  Harutyun Kachatryan from Armenia recieved it in 2010 and Semih Kaplanoglu (winner Berlin Golden Bear 2010) in 2011.  In 2009 Nilsson received the San Francisco Film Critic’s Circle Marlon Riggs Award for courage and achievement in the making of the 9 @ Night Film Series. His book of poetry, FROM A REFUGEE OF TRISTAN DA CUNHA was released in September 2007 and is available at

PRESQUE ISLE (2007) a narrative feature written and directed and shot on locations in the Santa Cruz Mountains and Northern Wisconsin premiered at the Mill Valley Film Festival in 2007.  PRESQUE ISLE is co- produced by the San Francisco School of Digital Filmmaking and Citizen Cinema.

IMBUED (2009) a narrative feature featuring Stacy Keach and Liz Sklar  had its World Premiere at the Mill Valley Film Festival in 2009  Special screenings and theatrical openings have followed in Syracuse, Kansas City, Armenia and Moscow.

SAND, (2010) the first feature from the Citizen Cinema Player’s Ensemble won four awards for acting and directing at the Syracuse International Film Festival (2010

THE STEPPES- (2011) featuring Irit Levi was included in the Perspectives Competition of the Moscow International Film Festival which also honored Nilsson with a 2011 Retrospective.  THE STEPPES won three awards for direction and acting at the Syracuse International Film Festival and the Moscow Press Award from the Russia Abroad Film Festival, Moscow, 2011

WHAT HAPPENED HERE? a feature documentary/road movie/personal essay built around the life of Leon Trotsky had its World Premiere at the Mill Valley Film Festival in Oct. 2011 and played in the cinematheques of Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Haifa in 2012.  MAELSTROM, a recent Direct Action feature film made with the Citizen Cinema Player’s Ensemble and Meets the Eye Productions received its World Premiere at Mill Valley in 2012.   Also in 2012 In October, 2012 Nilsson received the Sophia Lifetime Achievement Award from the Syracuse International Film Festival along with Ron Perlman and Karen Black and the Mill Valley Film Award with co- recipients Phil Kaufman, Peter Coyote, Les Blank, and John Korty.

MAELSTROM, a feature from the Citizen Cinema Player’s Ensemble and Meets the Eye Productions with Samantha Vansteen, Dan Da Silva, Ed Ferry and Deniz Demirer premiered at the Mill Valley Film Festival in 2012.

A LEAP TO TAKE, an experimental feature film shot almost in real time was produced with Celik Kayalar’s Film Acting Bay Area and premiered at the Moscow International Film Festival in June, 2013.  A Citizen Cinema Player’s Ensemble feature COLLAPSE, a Direct Action feature made with past and present dancers from the San Francisco Ballet premiered at the Mill Valley Film Festival in October, 2013.  BRIDGE TO A BORDER, a Direct Action feature with a domestic terrorism theme produced with the Citizen Cinema Player’s Ensemble and Meets the Eye Productions is in post production and will be completed in early 2014.

NEW FILMS in development include WOMAN 1, a feature film about two years in the life of the painter Willem deKooning, to feature Thure Lindhardt, Hani Furstenberg, Stacy Keach, Ron Perlman, Maria Grazia Cucinotta, Finnoula Flanagan and Tom Bower,  LOST ART to feature Carl Lumbly and ISLA, a feature to be shot on the island of Isla Mujeres  off the coast of the Yucatan.

picture of Rob Nilsson

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I've always liked the slogan, "Opinion rules the world." The 15,000 is a chronicle of opinions I'd like to have more heft in the neighborhood. I've lived long enough to realize that silence has great value. I think it's the great growing space pregnant in the seed before it blooms. And then you talk.

Every month I'll be writing on a topic related to our films: production, distribution, exhibition. Or I'll follow inspiration, desperation and other burrs under the saddle to talk about cinema, art, society ... the gamut.

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