By Diana Cheng
It first started with journalist Jessica Bruder camping in a tent then later in a van for three winters in the desert around Quartzsite, Arizona. Her plan was to get acquainted with a group of modern-day nomads living in RV’s, vans, and car campers. Bruder’s three-year research resulted in the non-fiction book Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twentieth-first Century (2017), an eye-opening account of a fringe population growing in large numbers after the 2008 financial meltdown. Many of the nomads were once middle-class Americans who had lost their jobs, homes, investments and retirement savings during the economic crisis.
Bob Wells, who started the website CheapRVLiving.com in 2005, is the guru of nomadic living. But it was after the 2008 economic catastrophe that he saw the traffic to his site ‘exploded’. Linda May and Swankie are two of these nomads in their 60s and 70s. To sustain their living, many become migrant workers doing seasonal work and hard labour in Amazon warehouses to earn minimal wages.
Bruder’s book is rich in data and testimonials. While offering an in-depth look at how the nomads not only survive on bare essentials but how they find community, friendship and support, at the same time, it is a scathing social commentary on the human toll of the 2008 financial meltdown, and a stark revealing of exploitive employment of a vulnerable, elderly labor force.
What follows is intriguing. One of my first questions to ask Frances McDormand if I had the chance to interview her would be why she thought Bruder’s non-fiction work, though exceptional, would make a good movie so much so that she acquired its film rights.
Cut to the Toronto International Film Festival, September, 2017, where the film Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri starring McDormand was screened. Stepping out of a press junket for her film, McDormand went to catch another TIFF selection, The Rider directed by Chloe Zhao. After watching, she knew who she’d want to direct the movie adaptation of Nomadland.
Adhering to the practice of her first two features, Songs my Brothers Taught Me and The Rider, Zhao casts real-life, non-professionals to play a cinematic version of themselves. She shot her debut work in the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota and had Lakota youths tell their story. For The Rider, about a cowboy facing the end of his career after a fall during a rodeo resulting in a traumatic head injury, Zhao cast a real life bronco who’d suffered a similar tragedy to play himself.
Zhao’s signature naturalistic rendering is how she styles the adaptation of Nomadland. Real life nomads in Bruder’s book, Linda May, Swankie, Bob Wells among others all appear as themselves, enhancing authenticity. To develop a narrative vein, Zhao creates two fictional characters, Fern (Frances McDormand) and Dave (David Strathairn), to weave among them.
In the film, an unadorned McDormand, spot-on with her weary and dishevelled looks as Fern, mingles and makes friends with the nomads, learning the ropes of self-sufficiency. With Linda May, she works as a camp host and as a warehouse worker with Amazon’s CamperForce. Through the dialogues, some of Bruder’s researched data and testimonials flow out naturally.
Born in Beijing, China, Zhao was uprooted when just a teenager to travel to the UK for school and later to the US. She graduated from college in Massachusetts, after that attended NYU Tisch School of the Arts and is now living in California. Her diasporic experience is itself a kind of a nomadic journey. It could well be that her liminal identity, an insider-outsider multiplicity, has equipped her with a unique point of view as a filmmaker.
Shot in five Western States on location where nomads frequent, the film Nomadland is essentially about one woman’s journey towards healing as she takes to the road. Fern and her husband Bo had long worked for US Gypsum and built their home and community in the company town Empire, Nevada. When Bo died of cancer, and later the whole town disappeared from the map as US Gypsum shut down its plant in 2011 after 88 years, Fern stayed in her company house till the very end. There’s this poignant dialogue when she talks to Bob Wells:
“Bo never knew his parents and we never had kids. If I didn’t stay, if I left, it would be like he never existed… It’s like my dad used to say: ‘What’s remembered lives.’ ”
From a non-fiction book on nomads surviving America, Zhao has turned this into a humanistic, personal narrative of loss and healing. While the book is more explicit in its critique and social commentary, Zhao’s film exudes a tone of acceptance, as her focus is not so much on societal ills or corporate greed but the humanity of the characters.
The camera follows Fern in her attempts to connect her past with her present, as she travels down the road to an unknown future. Shot in the magic hour of dawn and dusk and accompanied by the pensive score by Ludovico Einaudi (The Father, 2020), cinematographer Joshua James Richards (The Rider, 2017) knows when to capture Nature’s golden light to elicit depth and allow time for thoughts. While nature is a healer––and we see many soul-stirring scenes reminiscent of Terrence Malick––Fern’s journey to recovery rests in the memories of the ones she still loves even though they have all departed.
And with that, Zhao invokes The Bard. In the latter part of the film, Fern meets a young drifter Derek again and they chat. Derek is lost for words when writing letters to his girlfriend. Fern suggests he uses a poem, and upon his prompting, she shares the one she used as her wedding vow, Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18. When two characters are sitting on gravel ground beside a makeshift fire for warmth adjacent a highway and one recites a Shakespearean love sonnet, it seems incompatible with the setting. But then, why would it be?
What follows is probably the most beautiful sequence in the film. From memory, Fern starts: “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?/Thou art more lovely and more temperate…” As she goes on, the camera shifts to the evening sky and finally rests on Fern in the van looking at slides of her dad, mom, sister, and herself as a young child as we hear her voice-over continuing with the sonnet towards the last lines: “So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see/So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.” Thereafter, the camera follows Fern to the redwood forest, where her outstretched arms can only span a tiny portion of a tree trunk, herself minuscule in comparison.
Thus she drives on to a destination unknown. And ‘this’ that gives life could be two-fold. Nature and her memories of loved ones, not a sonnet written with words but one etched deep in her heart.
Diana Cheng is a freelance book and film reviewer. She blogs at Ripple Effects where this article first appeared.
Nomadland won Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actress at the 2021 Academy Awards, among 230 other wins internationally.
The book won Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers Award. Jessica Bruder is an adjunct professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.
Jessica Bruder, Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century (W. W. Norton & Company, 2017) 273 pp., hardcover.
BUY at Blackwell’s via our affiliate link (free UK P&P)