By Mique Wilson
The empathy machine of cinema rarely works as well as it does in Chloe Zhao’s latest, “Nomadland”(2020). This masterful ode to the human spirit showcases landscapes of visual and interpersonal poetry in the story of Fern (Frances McDormand), a woman who, after losing everything in the Great Recession, finds herself on a solo journey through America. Dwelling in her van, she meets friends along the way and ruminates on the life she’s lived. This is a stunning film that manages to capture the beauty and ugliness of life and bottle it up, presenting it in just under two hours.
This tale all started out with a book by Jessica Burder, bearing the same name. Burder, you see, was fascinated by people who had–of their own accord–chosen to defect from the system. A system that demands we submit and work our entire lives to benefit someone who should never even aspire to be as rich as one day. And for what? So we can scrape by and merely sustain ourselves by hopefully keeping a roof over our heads and having access to basic necessities like food and drink? The people in the book and this film said to hell with this corporate slavery, the world is our home, nature is our peace, our lives are ours.
McDormand had apparently been so inspired by Burder’s work, that she personally sought out director Chloe Zhao (who had previously directed the critically acclaimed film, “The Rider”). Together, the two built a riveting character in Fern; a strong, complex woman whose sadness and loneliness were present, yet didn’t define her entire person.
The film is accompanied by this lovely 20-minute documentary, which gives us a firsthand seat at all the work that had gone into this production. We learn how all these real life stories were seamlessly weaved into the tapestry of this resplendent finished product. We witness how Zhao examines the independent decisions of these characters through a lens of both curiosity and empathy. She talks about how she sought to bring a fresh, inquisitive look into the lives of the retired American working class by highlighting their struggles, dreams, and aspirations.
We see how the production team has gone to the places where the work of these people is done. This lends credibility and verisimilitude to a human experience so foreign to the silver screen. For fifty days, they traversed the terrains of five states, shooting the various locales, and striving ardently to capture the best image with the best possible lighting. This is a challenge faced by all filmmakers who choose to shoot their films in natural lighting, due to how the amount of times a scene needs to be shot for them to get the perfect (or at least a usable) shot. The process of doing so is painstaking, yet Zhao has made it look so effortless.
There is an almost universal idea of wanting to belong; of wanting to properly sync into a community of people with a shared human experience, regardless of what our own personal goals are. What I found to be the most fascinating was how they had found and hired non professional actors to be in the film. This humanizes and celebrates the people they’re telling the story of. Entire months were said to have been spent gathering the names of people interested in being featured in the film. Even more complex was how these stories were planned to intersect with Fern’s journey and inner world. 3D movies wish to be this immersive; it truly doesn’t get any more real than this.