It's easer to lie in documentary than in fiction…


I did this interview with Rob Nilsson about eighteen months ago. We were supposed to publish our new magazine “Cinema Without Borders” and open it with Rob’s interview. Many obstacles delayed our plans. But reading the review again, I found it very interesting and eye opening.
Here is the interview. It is worth mentioning that just a day before I call Rob, his friend Edwin Johnson had passed away.
Rob Nilsson, an independent film author has always been in search of finding new languages for filmmaking and innovative ways of filmmaking. We could claim that he belongs to the “Street Filmmaking” movement, but his work goes beyond that and it’s hard to be categorized.
Rob is not only a film director, but earlier in his filmmaking career he has acted in a few movies and is also known for his poetry.
Rob Nilsson movie “Northern Lights” (1979) won Camera D’Or at Cannes.
For more information on Rob Nilsson work, check

Bijan Tehrani: Who was the friend who passed away? His funeral was yesterday, right?
Rob Nilsson: Yeah we had a beautiful funeral for Edwin Johnson. It was in a funeral home in Oakland and was very warm, filled with tears and laughter and a lot of good sentiments. Some people insisted that he accepted Christ and others knew better, but everyone got a chance to have their say. Many of the workshop members were there on very short notice because his family (brother and sister) had come up from Louisiana and wanted to get everything done while they were there. So we went for it with the STROKE (9 @ Night feature film #4) movie poster featuring his inimitable mug next to his coffin.

Then I wrote an article about Edwin for Res Magazine. I called it THE UNKNOWN ACTOR because Edwin spoke for the aspirations of everyday people and showed what they can do if trusted and given an opportunity to express their depths, which is what I believe he did. In my article his tomb was the alley, the hard traveled streets, the bars, homeless encampments and landfills where he lived those rare performances of his in CHALK and the 9 @ Night movies. His tomb is in a part of the city where people experience the joys and sorrows perhaps in greater extremity than out in the suburbs where people are protecting their comfort.

Edwin was never comfortable, always out on an edge, one way or another. I’m surprised he lived as long as he did. But he had a full life and everyone at that ceremony testified to that. He was not always on this side of the law either. He knew the streets. He knew the inside of prison. He knew how to help people as a drug rehab counselor. And he knew how to help people off the streets where he had once been himself. He had a very kind and empathetic view of life, a non-judgmental view, and this is what we celebrated. He was our first workshop member, and a very inspiring man. We will miss him but he makes us all the more determined to follow through with our mission to be in communities where people want to be expressive and can be expressive and who want a movie made about their lives, their circumstances, their truths, their take on the way things seem to be.

In my opinion it’s easer to lie in documentary than in fiction. In fiction you look into peoples’ eyes, you see ground zero, and you gather who they are using the judgment you have developed over time. It’s in their words. It’s a matter of conduct, whether it is desperate conduct or considered conduct. You see. You judge. You know through your stomach lining as opposed to your brain.

In most documentaries you try to present the most imposing side of yourself, the most intelligent, and the most together. You can be unintentionally hypocritical because you’re putting your best foot forward. But in drama you don’t necessarily put your best foot forward. You might even put your worst foot forward. I think this is one of the chief virtues of drama… to allow people to feel less alone with their own indiscretions. I mean we are filled with contradiction and paradox. No work is important which can’t show this. Edwin was part of a mission to make cinema which looks for the way things seem to be. He showed that he was like all of us in favor and in fault. Edwin did his part to keep people awake and aware, aware of their fakery and foolishness as well as their charm and honesty.

Bijan: How did he Join the workshop, and how did he pass away?
Rob: Well we were out just filming in the streets one time, and Edwin just came out of the shadows. He was pretty drunk at the time and he pulled on my sleeve and started to babble about how his wife was dead. He was working me with self- pity, probably looking for some money to keep drinking. But we got past that, and later we got into more truthful exchanges. He and his road dog Buck and I would get together and he became the first guy to tell me about what was going on in the streets, who the guys were with the brown bags, who the shopping bag ladies were, who the people wrapped in blankets lying on cardboard in the alleys were. He and Buck told me what they thought about and what they were there for. And he became a charter member of the workshop. He was there at the very first meeting in 1991, and right up to his death he was part of our crew, our acting ensemble. Eventually, partially due to his work with us he become a drug rehab councilor in a place called Milestones. He worked in halfway houses like that for several years.

He was a real inspiration for the clientele because he had been on the streets and knew what life was like from the bottom up. So people trusted him. When he told them something about drugs and what was holding them back, they listened because he’d had every problem known to man. Towards the end he had heart problems and high blood pressure. He contracted prostate cancer and had an operation for that, and it seemed like he was really doing well. He had just finished his role in USED, 9 @ Night feature film #8 when he had a heart attack in the middle of the night. I was gone at the time and returned four days later and found him in his room.

Bijan: A shame. He was obviously a great guy and would have had much to tell us if he were alive today. So tell me how the Tenderloin yGroup workshops got started?
Rob: Well the workshops started when I was driving through the Tenderloin everyday on my way to the edit room where we were cutting HEAT AND SUNLIGHT. I would look around half expecting to see my brother who was a homeless man who had been missing for many years. I began to get interested in the people who lived down there so I moved into a transient hotel and began writing the screenplay for HOPE FOR THE FOURTH ACE, a story about a homeless Vietnam veteran and a lottery ticket. Thats when I met Edwin. I was giving a talk to some folks in a halfway house about this project when they suggested I put together an actor’s workshop which would be a place for street people, inner city residents and all-comers to come in an do drama and maybe help some people get off the street. When I finished the screenplay I got commitment letters from Whoopie Goldberg, Danny Glover, Sam Jackson, Armand Assante and Peter Coyote to appear in the movie and I thought the workshop could supply the supporting cast for the film. But even with this cast, I couldn’t raise the money to make the film. But, to back up, I knew I wasn’t an acting teacher but I put together experiences I had had in the martial arts, in Reichian therapy, yoga and in directing actors and came up with a few concepts to get started. I also took a page from Lee Strasberg and eventually arrived at a procedure which emphasized relaxation, concentration and emotional experience. I also observed that people on the streets often held back emotion, because you don’t want to feel too much… you are looking to survive and you think you are probably best left out of the limelight. I saw a lot of pent up emotion out there, and what do you need in drama? You need emotion, daring, willingness to muddle around in life’s contradictory ups and downs and a commitment to express the truths you feel about them. So I set out to see what people were capable of . I found that four powerful spurs were joy, rage, despair and intimate connection. Cathartic spurs. And I found that people could increase their expressivity if they could reach these states… conjure them up in a workshop context and learn how to find them when they were needed in performance. We encouraged people to stretch, to go past the usual social limitations, anywhere short of hurting anyone else physically. We worked out of a circle of risk and protection where we encouraged people to seek the truth rather than a polite interpretation of it. For the better part of fourteen years we worked this way, making the workshop available for those who might find it useful. Over the years it became the foundation for our acting style.

Bijan: You said you didn’t like Clint Eastwood’s film MILLION DOLLAR BABY. Why?
Rob: I think the small details in films reveal a lot. Eastwood played an aging trainer in the film but when he stepped into the ring he revealed he was really a producer who didn’t have time to study the moves of a real trainer. So if he can get that wrong, what other details is he willing to falsify? As with RAGING BULL… almost everything. And if that’s so, what will he do with human relationships? It’s hard to get any sport right on film. But some of the ROCKY movies did better in showing the moves of real boxers. And the Rocky- esque plot line is the weakest aspect of MILLION DOLLAR BABY.

It’s hard to escape those standard plot lines. Sports films are almost always about some version of a black sheep or an underdog with no chance to win who somehow pulls it off. I used one myself with the PG Version of ON THE EDGE and I was trying like hell to avoid it. MILLION DOLLAR BABY makes you feel for the Hillary Swain character up until the moment when you start to wonder if your pocket is being picked. By the time you turn around, your wallet is gone and when you turn back, so is the popcorn.

Let’s compare the sports exaggerations and predictable character situations of BABY with a film which takes something real and fashions a drama to further illuminate it. Sally Potter’s THE TANGO LESSON is personal. Its subject is one she lived through. And she had the courage to feature the man she went through it with. An affair between an aging woman who once danced and a Master tango dancer in his prime leads to the woman getting serious about dancing again. As she improves, under his tutelage, she is brought in to be his dance partner in a public performance. As I remember it, the entire performance is captured from behind the dancers, looking out over the footlights towards the audience. You can see a middle aged woman dancing really well. You can see a risk taker risking greatly. After the show he is furious. She may have done well by our lights, but he sees through her and does not spare her the perfectionist’s expectation.

Sally Potter, herself an aging woman who is starting to lose her beauty, dances to her capacity, valiantly, skillfully, but ultimately, unsuccessfully. I think it took courage and self knowledge for her to expose herself this way. And the final success of this drama is that we see these small but telling imperfections in her dancing but there is no attempt to underline it for us. We know how to evaluate these things without Hollywood’s condescending efforts to explain everything. And when we hear her partner’s angry critique we see that we were right.

This is film which educates but doesn’t teach, which makes it necessary for us to exercise personal judgment and know- how. You can’t predict what is going to happen and you have to draw your own conclusions. This is what Art does and I think its real function is to add to our store of experiences, to increase our understanding and inspire a more passionate approach to living. Not that it needs such a justification from me. But another way to look at Art is that it is done by someone who can show us something we couldn’t have known otherwise. The rest might be skillful entertainment but it doesn’t transport us, however briefly, to privileged inspiration and vision.

Bijan: To what are your thoughts on the new revolution of high definition digital cameras for shooting films?
ROB: When the printing press was invented it enabled poets as well as dunces. Everyone had more opportunity to publish their work but we don’t remember what the dunces did. The same thing is now happening with low cost digital technology. So far, we have not seen much new work of lasting value. The Internet is a perfect leveler and has enabled a flood of personal scribbling best forgotten. Perhaps its greatest use has been in the field of journalism with its ability to generate instant on location information and opinion.

Everybody is using it these days. I read an article in the New York Times about a gang making movies about their gang wars. Exactly what this means for the young and up-coming Shakespeares I’m not sure. But I do applaud the instinct to turn the cameras on life as it is being lived. I’m not talking about documentary here. I think drama made this way is the unique forward- looking mode, one of the great new directions in the cinema. I don’t think many people see how revolutionary this is. It seems so easy, so simple, so inevitable. But people need to SEE it, and beyond that, understand what it’s trying to do. Instead we have legions of young people imitating TV, Hollywood style features, and the predictable doldrums of Indiewood. In the feature film there are few young directors who seem interested in “the way things seem to be.” Another barrier is the idea that documentary is more “real” than feature cinema. I think the opposite is true, provided the work stays close to the ground, close to the mysterious “now”, seemingly obvious, but actually the most subtle and fleeting of states.

As I’ve said before I think that digital video is the artist’s stubby pencil. One of its major advantages is the way it allows for intimacy, for unobtrusive presence in places and situations which, prior to now, had to be elaborately re-created. In my films I prefer to create just once. I am betting on fresh circumstance and players working with neither the burdens of memorization nor enormous weight (time, money, bureaucracy) of prior cinematic technologies. Today beautiful encounters, photographed in the most intimate ways, can be created with a guerrilla cast and crew of five people in an alley at 2:00 in the morning. You go there, you shoot, you leave. Not even a footprint left behind.

But you asked about High Definition video. It’s good if you’re looking for high concept clarity and production values. But this look carries a message and a meaning which might not be right for many films. Personally, I enjoy the rougher look, just as I prefer Van Gogh to David, for example, or Cassavetes to David Lean.


About Author

Bijan Tehrani

Bijan Tehrani a film director, film critic and writer, works as editor in chief of Cinema Without Borders while teaching Language of Film and Film History at workshops nationwide. Bijan has won several awards in international film festivals and book fairs for his short films and children's books.

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