• October 4, 2023

Nonfiction Techniques Underpin Film ‘Nomadland’ : NPR

In the new film Nomadland, director Chloe Zhao combines fact and fiction. The film follows the life of the modern American nomad after the housing and financial crisis of 2008.


A new film entitled “Nomadland” offers a glimpse into the lives of older Americans who move into their vehicles – mainly for economic reasons, but also to accept it or at least see it as a way of life. The film is a fiction, but as NPR’s Alexi Horowitz-Ghazi reports, its director borrows from the world of documentaries to tell the story.

ALEXI HOROWITZ-GHAZI, BYLINE: When we meet Fern, the 60-year-old protagonist of “Nomadland” played by Frances McDormand, for the first time, her life is in motion.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR # 1: (as character) My mom says you are homeless. Is that true?

FRANCES MCDORMAND: (as fern) No, I’m not homeless. I’m just without a house – not the same, right?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR # 1: (as character) No.

MCDORMAND: (as fern) Don’t you worry about me. I am fine.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: After her husband’s death and the economic collapse of the mining town of Nevada, where she lives, she moved to a white Ford Econoline van nicknamed Vanguard that houses her few valuable possessions. She meanders through a series of vast, beautiful, and sometimes brutal landscapes to the west in search of work.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR # 2: (as character) So when do you have to go back to work?

MCDORMAND: (as fern) now. I need a job. I like to work.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR # 2: (as character) I’m not sure what you would qualify for.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: She takes on shifts at an Amazon fulfillment center, hosts a campsite in the South Dakota badlands, and harvests beets in the fields of Nebraska. At each stop, Fern meets other nomads, middle-aged Americans, and older Americans who are on the same trail.


LINDA MAI: (as herself) I approached 62 and went online to check out my social security benefits. It was called $ 550. Fern, I had worked all my life. I had worked since I was 12, raised two daughters. I could not believe it.


HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Based on the 2017 non-fiction book “Nomadland” by journalist Jessica Bruder, the film shows a cast of mostly non-actors, real nomads like Linda May, whom you have just heard and who tell the true stories of their lives in Frame of a fictional film. And that mix of fact and fiction is a signature technique used by the film’s director, Chloe Zhao.

CHLOE ZHAO: I think I’m looking for some kind of truth, you know? I am looking for authentic moments.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Zhao’s films were called modern westerns, but Zhao says she didn’t actually see those films grow up in Beijing. And her interest in the western landscape came later, towards the end of film school at NYU. When she saw a series of National Geographic photos of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, she knew she wanted to make her first film there.

ZHAO: Such an American message and identity could be seen in these pictures – how special the conflict between old and new is when you see a Lakota boy on a horse at a gas station without a saddle and wearing a Tupac T-shirt. So that’s how I went there first.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Zhao was planning a more traditional feature film that worked from a script with professional actors. But when her funding went down, she created a cinematic style that fit her budget. She focused her first film, Songs My Brothers Taught Me (2015), on non-actors and built trust with her subjects to incorporate the details of their personal lives into the story.

Her next film “The Rider”, which premiered in Cannes in 2017, is based on the same technique and tells the slightly fictionalized story of a young rodeo driver who has difficulties finding a new sense of identity after a traumatic brain injury. It won awards in Cannes and the Toronto International Film Festival, where director Diana Sanchez says the audience, including herself, was in tears.

DIANA SANCHEZ: You get so close to her characters. I think it is this intimacy that she can achieve that has really touched a person.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Frances McDormand, who had chosen the film rights for “Nomadland”, saw Chloe Zhao’s work for the first time in Toronto. As she told an audience at a screening last year, McDormand didn’t know how the book would be brought to screen, but when she discovered Zhao’s films she knew she had found the right creative partner.

MCDORMAND: As a writer or director, I couldn’t imagine that. But I had seen “The Rider” so I knew she could.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: And McDormand says Zhao brought her signature approach to this film.

MCDORMAND: Chloe and I have talked a lot about my own desire to live on the street. I told my husband when I turned 65 I would change my name to Fern, smoke Lucky Strikes, drink Wild Turkey and take to the streets in my RV.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: You traveled the country for months in delivery vans, met real nomads and incorporated your experiences into the film.

BOB WELLS: I deeply admire her as a storyteller.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Bob Wells is a central figure in the real nomadic community and plays himself in the film. He says that Zhao’s organic approach to filmmaking was a bit mysterious at times.

WELLS: I never knew what the story was. I think I saw the story unfold when we were making it. But the story lived in her head. And they captured nomadic life so well that it just felt like my life.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Earlier this month, Chloe Zhao became the first Asian woman to be nominated for Best Director at the Golden Globes, and the film has a huge Oscar craze. Later that year, she becomes the newest female indie director to direct a Marvel film. This movie? “The Eternals.”

Alexi Horowitz-Ghazi, NPR News.


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