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Rob Nilsson is an independent director, based in San Francisco. Nilsson and co-director John Hanson won the Camera d'Or at Cannes for Northern Lights (1978) and Nilsson won the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival for Heat and Sunlight (1987). He is the first American film director to have won both awards. In 2010, The Anthology Film Archive featured a retrospective of Nilsson's work with Cine Manifest, a film collective he co-founded in San Francisco during the 1970's. Works screened included Northern Lights (1978) and Signal 7 (1986).

He is the creator of the Direct Action style of digital filmmaking taught in the Tenderloin yGroup Actor's Ensemble, San Francisco 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 (1986) was the first small-format video feature to be blown up to film and distributed around the world. Chalk (1996), 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. It was voted one of the top films of the year by the Village Voice.

The 9 @ Night film series, nine feature films sharing characters and circumstance with dialogue improvised by the Players, received the San Francisco Film Critic's Circle Marlon Riggs Award for courage and innovation in cinema in 2008. Seven of Nilsson's 9 @ Night film series, nine Direct Action digital features cast from the yGroup, Stroke (2000), Singing (2000), Scheme C6 (2001) and Need (2005), Pan (2006), Used (2007) and Go Together (2007) had their World Premieres at the Mill Valley International Film Festival. Attitude (2003) had its World Premiere at the Hong Kong International Film Festival in 2003 and Noise (2002) at the Virginia FF, also in 2003. The World Premiere marathon screening of all 9 feature films took place at the Harvard Film Archive in 2007.

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 2000 at the Fukuoka Film Archives in Fukuoka and its US Premiere at the Mill Valley International Film Festival in 2000. In 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 International Film Festival in 2004.

In 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. In 2005 the Pacific Film Archive hosted the World Premiere of Security, a Direct Action feature film produced during a Nilsson residency at the University of California, Berkeley. Security won the Audience Award at the Green Cine Internet Film Festival. In 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 (1998), a feature film for the USA Channel, from a script by Rod Serling. Presque Isle (2008), a narrative feature shot on locations in the Santa Cruz Mountains and Northern Wisconsin premiered at the Mill Valley FF in 2007. Nilsson directed screen legend Stacy Keach in Imbued (2009) which premiered at the Mill Valley International Film Festival. With Citizen Cinema, he continued to create and direct films in the Direct Action improvisational style he pioneered. Nilsson completed Sand (2010), The Steppes (2011), Maelstrom (2012), Collapse, (2013), A Leap to Take, (2013) and A Bridge to a Border (2014). He also created a feature documentary, What Happened Here (2013) a road movie, personal essay on the life of Leon Trotsky.

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 received a Rockefeller Artist's Grant in 2002. Retrospectives of Nilsson's work have taken place at 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 IFF, and the Kansas City Filmmaker's Jubilee. He had  retrospectives at the Yerevan International Film Festival in Armenia, the Moscow International Film Festival, and the Love is Folly Film Festival, Varna, Bulgaria.

His films are currently being collected by IndieCollect to be archived in the Sundance Collection at the UCLA Film Archives. Recent films include PERMISSION TO TOUCH which premiered at the Mill Valley Film Festival in 2015 and then played at the Metrograph in New York City. NEXT YEAR IN BOLOGNA (2015) was produced with the International Film Academy in Bologna, Italy and LOVE TWICE (2016) also premiered at Mill Valley.


FOURTH MOVEMENT (2017) was shot entirely at night on locations in San Francisco and the East Bay with his Citizen Cinema Workshop. For greater emotional authenticity featured players from Italy, Germany, Turkey and Iran (all fluent in English) speak in their own languages, subtitled in English. A local jazz group, the Fred Randolph Quintet provides the jazz score.

Nilsson is currently working on the NOMAD TRILOGY cast with members of his Citizen Cinema Player’s Workshop, about characters living in their cars in defiance of real estate development and local ordinances designed to evict them. This project focuses on the homeless and houseless, and their desire to find a better place and a better way to live. The first dramatic feature in the trilogy, ARID CUT, had its World Premiere at the Mill Valley Film Festival October, 2019. The second film in the series,


CENTER DIVIDE, film #2, produced with the Citizen Cinema Workshop and local talents from Modoc and Lassen counties, had its World Premiere at the Mill Valley Film Festival, October, 2021. FAULT LINE, film#3 produced primarily in Modoc County and Northern Nevada is currently in post production. 

Additional Nilsson awards include the Neil Simon Award for the NORTHERN LIGHTS screenplay, the San Francisco Film Critics Marlon Riggs Award, the Ted M. Larson Award for "outstanding contributions to the film industry" 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 Filmmaker's Award from the Mill Valley Film Festival, the Master's Award from the Golden Apricot International Film Festival, Armenia, the Aphrodite Tribute Award  from the Love is Folly Film Festival, Bulgaria and the Sophia Lifetime Achievement Award from the Syracuse International Film Festival.  His book of poetry, From a Refugee of Tristan Da Cunha was released in 2007 and is available at and Wild Surmise, A Dissident View, his book about the cinema, was released in 2013 and is available on Amazon and Nilsson is also an artist with an extensive body of work and two recent one man shows at Spark Arts Gallery, San Francisco, and Meets the Eye Studios, San Carlos.


More information about Rob Nilsson’s films, acting workshops, paintings, poetry, articles and publications can be found on

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