For a long time, he says he tried to avoid making movies. He painted, wrote poetry, took a year off from Harvard to hitch-hike and work on steamers, taught English in Nigeria for the Peace Corps during the Vietnam War, drove a cab in Boston, lived on an island off the Biafran coast, took photos and took up the banjo. He was forty when his first feature length film came out.
"Northern Lights" (1978), which Rob Nilsson made with John Hanson and completed over several years time after a two-week shoot on location in North Dakota, then won the Camera d'Or at Cannes for best first film.
Speaking by phone recently from his Citizen Cinema office in Berkeley, California, Nilsson said, "The reason that I went into cinema -- and I tried to avoid it, I think, as much because my grandfather was a filmmaker -- but I took it on because you can do all those things in cinema. You can do language, you can do pictures, you can do composition, you can do music, and you're really creating a political unit, a little society, when you get together to make a film."
His grandfather's past was there waiting when Nilsson was ready. Frithjof Holmboe had been North Dakota's state photographer and made movies there as early as 1907, before moving west and finally settling in Mill Valley above San Francisco. Hanson, who worked with Nilsson through a 1970s era film collective in the Bay Area called Cine Manifest, also had family roots in North Dakota. Together with attorney John Stout, Nilsson and Hanson formed New Front Films in Minneapolis for the making of "Northern Lights."
"Northern Lights" is one of four films by Nilsson that's screening in a "special tribute retrospective" at the Syracuse International Film Festival. He'll also speak on a festival-sponsored panel about politics and film, and Stout, who's remained involved in Nilsson's ventures over the years, will join him on that panel.