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Nilsson Journeys from the Political to the Personal at MVFF34

With 'What Happened Here,' his latest MVFF world premiere, Rob Nilsson journeys from the Ukraine to the Midwest in pursuit of Leon Trotsky's past -- and his own.

While attending a 2009 retrospective of his work at a film festival in Armenia, indie filmmaker and Tam High grad  found himself a figurative stone’s throw from the birthplace of Leon Trotsky, the Russian revolutionary he had long admired. So he set off on a personal pilgrimage to Yanovka, in the Ukrainian countryside, the rugged landscape that produced one of the century’s most significant intellectual and political figures.

That jaunt eventually became the inspiration for Nilsson’s latest film, the evocative documentary What Happened Here, which has its world premiere Saturday, Oct. 8 at the .

The film began as a personal exploration of Trotsky’s roots, an attempt to understand the time, place and circumstances that contributed to his political philosophy. Nilsson had always admired the poetry and simplicity of Trotsky’s writing about his birthplace and was immediately inspired by the spare and honest beauty of the countryside he discovered there.

Nilsson, 71, had no intention, however, of making a film about the trip. But nonetheless, he found himself shooting footage on the small HD camera that he carries with him wherever he goes.

This unlikely journey that began almost by accident two years ago has led him twice to the Ukraine (the second time with Mickey Freeman, his longtime cinematographer), once to Israel and ultimately back to Rhinelander, Wisconsin, the hometown Nilsson left behind at age 14 to move to Mill Valley.

Along the way, Nilsson explained in a telephone interview, What Happened Here became less about Trotsky and more about what he found among the disappearing villages, the aging farmers clinging to their land, their outlook on life and how he – Rob Nilsson – fit into it all.

“For me, it comes down to the personal, always,” he says. “It’s very much of a personal movie, where I’m following clues as to what happened to these towns.” Nilsson's film ultimately settles not on the origin of Trotsky's politics, but on its legacy among the very people most affected by them.

As he re-traced Trotsky’s early years, he went from village to village, hearing from farmers whose families had known Trotsky’s family. He saw a population that had been through “successive waves of hell,” as he called them, and had no self-pity whatsoever. The people Nilsson encountered reminded him of the “salt-of-the-earth” Midwesterners he himself grew up among in Rhinelander, Wisconsin, and the prairie populism that he depicted in his breakout debut film, Northern Lights.

“I saw these villages and a way of life disappearing, and I had to ask myself, ‘Why is my hometown still there?’” Nilsson said. In that question, he also found a way to bring his exploration of Trotsky’s past full circle with his own.

Viewers accustomed to Nilsson’s signature realist style in his narrative films may be surprised by the meditative quality of What Happened Here, which feels more like a tone poem than the gritty drama many have come to expect from Nilsson. But in a career spanning nearly seven decades, Nilsson has proven himself nothing if not versatile.

As always, Nilsson's passion for film and for art remain palpable. He laments the superficiality of today’s society, saying “we’re treading in pretty shallow waters here… There’s no role for a vanguard culture and very little respect for the deeper role that artists can play.”

He looks back to the heady post-WWII days when abstract expressionists like Jackson Pollock and Willem deKooning muscled their way to the forefront of New York’s art scene as the last moment of really meaningful artistic expression in this country. In fact, Nilsson plans to make that epoch the focus of his next film, currently in pre-production with the working title Woman, I (after one of deKooning’s famous paintings).

Lucky for all of us here in Marin, there’s an excellent chance that we’ll be the first audiences to lay eyes on it.

The 411: What Happened Here screens Saturday, Oct. 8, at 9 p.m. at the Smith Rafael Film Center. Go to mvff.com for more information.

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