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Nomadland take 2: A reconfiguration of a terribly dysfunctional society.

Saturday 3 April 2021, by George Crosthwait

In 2011 the USG mine in Empire Nevada closed, effectively creating a ghost town. Caught in the wake of this collapse, Fern (Frances McDormand) has lost her job, her home and is reeling from her husband’s recent passing. Fern becomes part of the disparate and transient “nomad” community. The nomads are usually older, often solitary, Americans living on the road in cars, vans, and mobile homes, following seasonal work and forming short term convoys.

“What the nomads are doing is not that different from what the pioneers did. I think Fern’s part of an American tradition.” So says Fern’s sister, defending her at a bad-tempered cook out. But what sounds like a justification and possibly an ethos for the film, lands ambivalently. The nomads seek to exist on the periphery rather than strike out to tame and settle the expansive wilds of the new world. Again and again, Nomadland reinforces the precarity of a mode of living that can be shattered by a flat tyre, an unwanted visitor, the law, sickness, or the weather. What the pioneers did was to exact mass genocide on indigenous peoples in order to make claims on the land. Something not lost to a director whose previous two features, Songs My Brothers Taught Me (2015) and The Rider (2017), are both set on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. And whilst the nomad existence evokes a kind of libertarian fantasy, Fern’s situation is generated and perpetuated by the destabilising employment practices of companies such as USG and Amazon.

Nomad living is an insular inversion of the pioneer spirit and a rejection of the modern American dream, an attempt at a transparent existence with minimal impact upon the landscape. It may, however, be appropriate to think of Zhao herself as taking part in, or even establishing new pathways within an American cinematic tradition. Whilst Zhao evokes Terrence Malick with stunning, crepuscular photography of (appropriately) Badlands National Park, her focus on marginalised American lives places her more comfortably alongside contemporary filmmakers like Kelly Reichardt, Sean Baker, and Debra Granik. Whilst you can see the same interests in unorthodox modes of living/habitation as Granik’s Leave no Trace (2018) and (often temporary) female labour as Reichardt’s Certain Women (2016), Zhao’s films have less of the textured, tactile, immersive cinematography of her peers. Rather, films like The Rider and Nomadland have a more objective, observational tone. Her Malickean citations hold nature as something phenomenal to behold, rather than to fully sense. Her approach to her subjects is ethnographic, and much attention is paid to verbal testimony. The most initially striking aspect of Zhao’s style is her docufiction approach. Beyond recognisable stars (McDormand, David Strathairn) actors in Nomadland play versions of themselves and tell their own stories and histories of life on the road. Although Fern has a loose narrative arc of processing her personal traumas, at times she acts as a wandering witness, or conduit to these very real testimonies. This approach to filmmaking is distilled even further in The Rider, which incorporates an entire cast of non-actors performing both themselves and their community.

It’s a device that aligns Zhao with Todd Haynes, who briefly brings in actual victims of DuPont’s water poisoning in Dark Waters (2019), and the Ross Brothers, who tear down the boundaries between fiction and documentary in the magnificent Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets (2020). But with her unprecedented awards season success, no current filmmaker is exploring the pervasive sense of loss coursing through vast parts of the USA with such mainstream appeal. Nomadland pulls off the trick of romanticising without sugar coating that the best American art achieves. It is both a eulogy, a coping mechanism, and a reconfiguration of a terribly dysfunctional society.

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