Los Angeles times
Eight months ago, Chloé Zhao drove from her home in Ojai down the 101 Freeway to the Rose Bowl to see the pop-up drive-in premiere of “Nomadland,” the poignant story of a widow dealing with and with grief one on the street community finds group of travelers. While near Pasadena, Zhao noticed RVs and RVs and wondered if they were among the actual “nomads” attending the lively event dubbed the “Telluride from Los Angeles”. She also saw ash clouding the orange sky. The Bobcat Fire burned in the nearby San Gabriel Mountains, adding an apocalyptic atmosphere to a supposedly festive evening.
Zhao was initially dejected, wondering if the audience could even see the makeshift screen through the soot. But as the evening played out and Zhao was watching the movie from the back of the parking lot – after glancing at “The Empire Strikes Back” which happened to be playing at a drive-through next door – she realized that both take and the timing was perfect.
“I wouldn’t ask any other way about a philosophy that I believe in very much: Everything happens for a reason,” says Zhao. “It brought people closer together.”
“Nomadland”, which won the Oscar for best picture on Sunday, had this effect on people. Watching Fern (played by Oscar nominee Frances McDormand) on a literal and spiritual journey of discovery was deeply moving for the audience and academy, who were largely confined to their homes for the past year of the pandemic. That Rose Bowl screening was, in fact, the only Oscar contender many people in the industry have seen outside of their living room in the past 12 months, and it kicked off the awards season in a surreal way.
“They had a combination of nomads with their rigs and a lot of Los Angeles people with their Teslas who had no idea how to turn off the lights,” recalls producer Dan Janvey. “It was really nice to hear people express their affection by honking their horns. It’s an unusual way of feeling something. It was strange. “
“Nomadland” beat all fall film festivals in one way or another, winning the Venice Golden Lion (which was not merged for those in Europe personally), the Toronto Audience Award (a mix of virtual and personal programming) and screening as the centerpiece selection at the almost only virtual New York Film Festival. It immediately became the Best Picture Best-seller and received rave reviews that have garnered multiple awards from prestigious groups of critics, including the National Society of Film Critics’ Best Picture Award.
But the “Nomadlands” trip wasn’t without a couple of speed bumps. The film’s portrayal of people living on the margins of society has been scrutinized, and the scenes of Fern working at an Amazon warehouse and participating in the online retailer’s CamperForce program have been criticized for having the hard workplace realities of many employees did not show.
“The visual power of the film and its emotional core, Fern’s grief over the loss of her husband and her previous life, preoccupies the audience, not Amazon’s problems,” wrote ProPublica reporter Alec MacGillis. “You could easily get away from the movie if you got a good look at the tolls Amazon imposes on its workers, including temporary ones.”
These complaints made some headlines, but did not tarnish the picture in the eyes of voters. Nomadland has weathered the delayed awards season, won top visuals at the Golden Globes, Producers Guild Awards, and British Academy Film Awards, and won four Independent Spirit awards on Thursday, including image and director.
In fact, Beijing-born Zhao won almost every directing award, including from the Directors Guild and BAFTA. When she won the Oscar, she was the first woman of color to receive the award, and she joined Kathryn Bigelow (“The Hurt Locker”) as the second director to be honored.
The win for “Nomadland” was the fourth time in the last eight years that a Searchlight film won the best picture. This is a remarkable run that includes “The Shape of Water” (2018), “Birdman” (2015) and “12 Years a Slave” (2014). (Slumdog Millionaire won in 2009.) Disney acquired the specialty studio when it bought 21st Century Fox in 2019. Steve Gilula and Nancy Utley, her longtime senior executives, recently announced their retirement and made the Oscar for best picture a lovely (and fitting) farewell gift.
The win for “Nomadland” obviously felt different, obviously due to the turmoil of the past year and its ongoing impact on a film industry that was struggling to recover. But there was another distinction peculiar to the time, yes, but also positive in terms of access. Since the cinemas were closed or capacity was reduced, Searchlight entered into a partnership with Hulu and released “Nomadland” on the streaming platform on February 19 at the same time as the theatrical release. Anyone who wanted to see it just needed a decent internet connection and Hulu membership (or trial).
“This was one that you didn’t have to wait for it to come to your town to see,” says Janvey. “It was nice for people to have that option.” He hopes that moviegoers will have such alternatives in the future.
Zhao shot “Nomadland”, built her own RV, called it Akira and drove through the west, exploring places, meeting nomads and listening to their stories. “She leads you to a place of trust,” says McDormand, “and is really intrigued by people and their stories, which makes you want to keep sharing.”
Many of these stories ended up in the film, including a key scene with temporarily living advocate Bob Wells, who spoke movingly of the grief that consumed him after his son’s death. His scene with McDormand – two people who share the grief over the loss – became the backbone of the film and resonated with viewers as they grappled with their own feelings of heartache and distress over the past year.
“A lot of people, especially people this age, live this lifestyle because they were brought out on the streets through loss or grief and their recovery and choose this lifestyle to heal from,” says Zhao.
Little did Zhao know we were all trying to heal from something when she started filming in the fall of 2018. The time for the arrival of “Nomadland” couldn’t have been happier – for everyone.
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