Rusty Murphy as Travis in Berkeley filmmaker Rob Nilsson’s Center Divide. Credit: Rob Nilsson

Riding a stolen motorcycle across the seared, smoldering and COVID-19-threatened landscape of northeastern California, Rail and Mitra follow a series of rumors and desiccated clues in search of a shadowy father that Rail has never met.

It’s no coincidence that Nighttrain Schickele, the young man playing Rail in Berkeley filmmaker Rob Nilsson’s Center Divide, has only vague memories of his late father, David Schickele, a musician, actor, and filmmaker whose precious few films are being preserved by the Pacific Film Archive. But then, separating life from art is rarely a simple equation in the world of Rob Nilsson.

At 81, he’s a prolific master in command of his craft, but Nilsson isn’t interested in imposing his will on the screen. He’s spent decades developing a filmmaking process that depends upon his collaborators behind and in front of the camera taking an active role in creating and enacting a film’s story.

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“What I’m trying to do is get the film out of the film and get the people into it,” he said while taking a break from location scouting in Modoc County for the third movie in his Nomad trilogy. Center Divide, the second installment, premieres Oct. 10 at the Rafael Film Center as part of the Mill Valley Film Festival and is available for streaming via the MVFF through Oct. 17.

A chronicle of seekers and desperados on the move, Center Divide is unsettlingly contemporaneous, with smoke drifting across the screen, talk of the rising pandemic and ubiquitous face masks (which make some of the evocative performances all the more impressive). But there are always deeper realities poking through.

Rob Nilsson. Courtesy of the filmmaker

Dane, a Modoc Indian whose initially opaque attitude regarding his stolen motorcycle generates a good deal of tension, seizes the film for a few minutes as he tells a story about cat-and-mouse battles between Modoc leader Captain Jack (Kintpuash) and General Edward Canby. I paused the film to look up the story and the Modoc War of the early 1870s unfolded just as recounted by Dane (played by the laconically charismatic Daniel da Silva).

The first Nomad film, 2019’s Arid Cut, also premiered at MVFF, and grew out of a workshop in Nilsson’s West Berkeley studio. It’s the same process that inspired his remarkable 9 @ Night Film Cycle while he was leading workshops in the Tenderloin from 1992 through 2009. The nine films embody what Nilsson calls “improvisational cinema,” where participants in his “direct action” workshops reveal possible storylines over several months of exercises encouraging emotional flexibility.

“I gather these people and find out what movie I want to make,” he said. “It’s the opposite of casting, with people showing me the roles that they could play, implicitly and explicitly. I start to see a story, and write down a scene-by-scene outline.”

One needn’t have seen the first Nomad episode to enjoy Center Divide, which picks up mid-sojourn with the young couple Rail and Mitra on the barely discernable trail of his father, who may be connected with a lost desert hamlet called Arid Cut. It’s a picaresque, possibly quixotic quest along a braided trail that intersects with predatory real estate speculators, a hustling rapper, and the owner of the stolen bike, Dane, who in an unexpected and supremely joyous scene challenges Rail and Mitra to demonstrate the dance that preceded their heist.

Tony Milliner and Lydia Becker as Ziggy and Karin in Center Divide. Credit: Rob Nilsson

Shot on cell phones, Center Divide is both caustic and gentle, sardonic and reassuringly generous with the people it follows or happens upon. It’s not so much that Nilsson has a soft spot for hard-scrabble characters who live in the margins either by choice or happenstance. He’s just more curious about them than folks living in material comfort.

“My brother was a wandering nomad who was missing for 10 years at one point,” Nilsson said. “That part of being lost, sometimes visions come to you and you see things more clearly.”

Center Divide is greatly enhanced by locally sourced music from Berkeley violinist Irene Sazer’s Real Vocal String Quartet. Nilsson discovered the group while driving home from Petaluma and listening to KPFA. He’d originally intended to use a jazz-steeped score, but listening to Sazer’s musc “a lot of memories came back, feelings about growing up in small town,” said Nilsson, who reached out to her via a mutual friend, Berkeley composer Alexis Harte. “The music haunts me and touches me in a way that borders on something sentimental.”

Inspired to make movies by his first encounter with John Cassavetes’ breakthrough film Shadows, Nilsson disdains Hollywood’s notion of independent filmmaking. In an essay, he took the opposite tack.

“I’d rather be dependent, dependent on the life I see around me daily … films devoted to one person in a small town, one street in a town, one corner on a street, one building on a block, one house, even one room. The scope is so small human joys and sorrows are the only subjects which fit. People doing what they do. Sufferers trying to heal. Broken souls looking for respite. Resolute lovers trying to understand each other.”

Over the years Nilsson has won numerous awards, from the Camera d’Or at the Cannes for his 1979 feature film Northern Lights to the Grand Jury Prize Dramatic at the Sundance Film Festival for 1987’s Heat and Sunlight. At this point he’s collecting lifetime achievement honors from various international film festivals, but he’s much more interested in talking about his next film, and the various friends and colleagues who’ve surrounded him in Bricolage.

A loosely affiliated group that emerged out of his steady cinematic churn, Bricolage encompassed directors, editors and cinematographers such as Aaron Hollander, Daniel Kremer, Jeff Kao and Berkeley’s Josh Peterson, who cast Nilsson in his musical short Thirsty (which screened at the Tribeca Film Festival this summer).

Whether it’s finding an evocative setting or a vivid character, Nilsson loves the serendipity of working on the road. But West Berkeley, his home for the past three decades, has provided a deep pool of material and inspiration. “Go where you are, I’ve always felt that way about cinema,” he said. “I’ve always worked with that wherever I was.”

Train Schickele and Emily Corbo as Rail and Mitra in Center Divide. Credit: Rob Nilsson

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Freelancer Andrew Gilbert writes a weekly music column for Berkeleyside. Andy, who was born and raised in Los Angeles, covers a wide range of musical cultures, from Brazil and Mali to India and Ireland....