'Nomadland': a unique best picture winner

Andrew MARSZAL
·3-min read

"Nomadland," a unique fusion of road movie, Western, drama and documentary that chronicles a community of older Americans living off the grid after the global financial crisis, has completed its journey to Oscars glory.

The awarding of Hollywood's top prize on Sunday to Chloe Zhao's elegiac and experimental movie had been anticipated for months, as it swept festival prizes and guild awards in a year that saw many "larger" films delayed due to the pandemic.

But the best picture victory is a historic one nonetheless -- it is the first directed by a woman of color, starring a cast of largely non-actors playing versions of themselves.

"What a crazy once-in-a-lifetime journey we went on," Zhao said as she accepted her award for best director, itself historic as she is only the second woman to win the honor.

The movie is based on 2017 book "Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century," which US journalist Jessica Bruder wrote after living in an RV alongside America's transient community of low-wage, gray-haired laborers.

Producer Peter Spears ("Call Me By Your Name") took the story to actress Frances McDormand, who in turn tracked down Zhao after being mesmerized by a festival showing of her previous, rodeo-themed Western "The Rider."

Zhao immediately embraced the concept, and proposed creating the character Fern -- played by McDormand -- as an amalgam of various book characters.

On Sunday, McDormand took home her third acting Oscar for the role, and also shared the best picture prize as she was one of the film's producers.

Zhao also drew on Bruder's network to track down the book's real-life nomads including Linda May, Swankie and Bob Wells, who appear in her movie as themselves.

"For all of us, working in a hybrid way with established actors and non-professionals was new," said Spears, recalling how producers had pitched to studio Searchlight Pictures a "process of moviemaking that had a tremendous amount of risk built into it."

"We were very upfront about it and said 'This is what we know, this is what we don't know, and this is how we're going to approach it'... they didn't seem to blink."

- No 'politics' -

While the progress of "Nomadland" to best picture has appeared unusually smooth, it has courted its share of controversy along the way.

Beijing-born Zhao's success was initially celebrated in China, but a backlash formed last month after old interviews emerged in which she appeared to criticize her country of birth.

"Nomadland" currently has no listed release date in China, and promotional material for the film has disappeared.

Closer to home, a failed drive to form Amazon's first union at a warehouse in Alabama has prompted reassessment of scenes filmed on the giant retailer's premises that omit some of the book's harsher depictions of strenuous working conditions.

Bruder and Wells have both defended Zhao's portrayal as largely accurate, while the director herself has avoided commenting on any row.

"I don't make films about politics," said Zhao at the US drive-in premiere of "Nomadland" last September.

"We can leave that to the politicians. I like to present you the reality of the lives people live, and I like you to take away your interpretations."

- 'Not craving, not needing' -

If the film does have a message, it is alarm at the absence of any safety net for older Americans -- and a salute to the resilience of the "nomads" who eke out a living while seeking spiritual growth and community.

"This country is built on acquiring, and buying and getting," Wells told last year's premiere.

"And so when someone says 'No, my life is built on not having, not craving, not needing,' most people don't understand."

"What would happen if we all did that?" he added. "Well, maybe the Earth would survive."

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