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Nomadland: A Romanticisation Of Misery?

Sunday 21 March 2021, by Kaveh Abbasian

In Chloé Zhao’s 2020 docu-fiction, Frances McDormand plays a woman in her sixties whose financial circumstances force her out of her home and into a life on the road, roaming the country in a camper van in search of temporary work.

Nomadland (2020) is a romanticisation of misery. And for that reason, it is going to win the Academy Award for Best Picture. In an era where hopelessness is the norm and anxiety about our bleak future is prevalent among most of us, cultural productions such as Nomadland help normalise the new economic and political reality of our lives. The film depicts jobless and homeless victims of late-stage capitalism as heralds of a romantic nomadic lifestyle who have chosen to live like that rather than being forced to. Our protagonist does not want a home and she twice refuses the offer to settle down. She likes to be on the road and always “curious about what’s out there”.

By creating this fake sense of agency, the film then perpetuates the most ideological myth about the gig economy: that temporary gig work (no holiday pay, no unions, no pension, no insurance, etc.) is in fact what the workers truly want. With that in mind, it comes as no surprise to see the film starting with and ending on Amazon as this bright island of hope and security, where our protagonist can work for a brief period of time among nice and cheerful managers and earn “great money” before hitting the road again.

From what I understand, contrary to the film, the book that the film is based on (Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century) does in fact reflect on the dark reality of such lifestyles imposed on the disadvantaged members of the society. The book, which unlike the film is a true non-fiction account of this new “nomadic” experience, documents the daily violence experienced by those people and accounts for death and misery caused by “capitalism”. The film adaptation, however, is completely devoid of that critical aspect. The film glorifies that imposed lifestyle, the gig economy, and the big modern slave owners such as Amazon.
I know that it might not be very fashionable these days to look at the class background of the filmmakers, but a quick search online tells me that Chloe Zhao (writer for screen, director, editor), comes from an upper-class family and was sent to elite schools from a very young age. It also tells me that she has never experienced anything even mildly close to poverty. Perhaps it is easier for someone with that background to look down on us and see a noble savage, a romantic nomad.

As a refugee who has experienced homelessness and has worked various kinds of jobs and at times multiple jobs at once, I can assure you of one thing and that is that there is nothing romantic or desirable about having to constantly jump between jobs to earn a living; there is nothing beautiful about not having the chance to unionise, there is no glory in poverty, no spiritual awakening in homelessness, even if you shoot all the scenes during the golden hour.
Chloe Zhao has mentioned in interviews that she wanted to make a film that goes “beyond political statements”. In my opinion, Nomadland is the most political film of the year.

Dr Kaveh Abbasian is a filmmaker, lecturer, researcher festival programmer and specialist in Iranian cinema based in London. You can check out his work on his website, on Instagram and Twitter.

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