'Nomadland' Oscars: here's why the win is unique

Hollywood, United States: "Nomadland," a rare combination of road movie, Western, thriller, and documentary that follows a group of older Americans living off the grid after the global financial crisis, has arrived at the Oscars.

The awarding of Hollywood's top prize to Chloe Zhao's elegiac and experimental film, which swept festival prizes and guild awards in a year that saw several "larger" films delayed due to the pandemic, had been expected for months.

Nonetheless, the best picture win is historic in that it is the first directed by a woman of color and stars a cast of mostly non-actors portraying 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 film is based on US journalist Jessica Bruder's 2017 book "Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century," which she wrote after living in an RV with America's transient population of low-wage, gray-haired laborers.

Producer Peter Spears ("Call Me By Your Name") pitched the story to actress Frances McDormand, who tracked down Zhao after seeing her previous rodeo-themed Western "The Rider" at a festival.

Zhao jumped on board right away, proposing that the character Fern (played by McDormand) be created as a mash-up of various book characters.

McDormand won her third acting Oscar for the part on Sunday, and she also shared the best picture award as one of the film's creators.

Also read | "Nomadland" director Chloe Zhao is second woman to win best director Oscar

Zhao has used Bruder's network to track down real-life nomads featured in the novel, such as Linda May, Swankie, and Bob Wells, who appear in the film 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' 

Zhao's performance in China was initially lauded, but a backlash erupted last month after old interviews surfaced in which she appeared to condemn her home country.

In China, no release date for "Nomadland" has been set, and promotional material for the film has vanished.

Closer to home, a failed attempt to create Amazon's first union at a warehouse in Alabama has sparked a re-evaluation of scenes shot on the giant retailer's property that omit some of the book's sharper descriptions of difficult working conditions.

Zhao's depiction has been defended by Bruder and Wells as essentially true, although the director herself has remained silent on the controversy.

"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 has a message, it is one of concern about the lack of a safety net for older Americans, as well as a tribute to the "nomads" who scrape by while pursuing 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."

Share this story