Winner of the Golden Lion for best film, “Nomadland”, starring Frances McDormand, screens at the BFI London Film Festival.

“I’m not homeless, I’m houseless” states Frances McDormand’s character in Nomadland, the startling new film from director Chloé Zhao, based on the non-fiction book by Jessica Bruder.

In the slump of 2008, more and more people, mostly elderly who sank beneath rising rents and risked retirement funds, ventured out in vans to find a new life. Fern (McDormand) is one of those people: after her husband’s death and the great recession hitting the city of Empire Nevada, she sets off for the open road.

The woman is initially alone, but she soon encounters several individuals who have chosen the same way of living. These are the real nomads that Zhao and McDormand met while filming over four months: Linda, Swankie, Gay. Some are broken spirits on a healing journey, while others grew tired of missing out in life and changed its course completely. McDormand mixes with the nomads in such a natural way that makes us forget she isn’t one of them.

Even if these people were forced to adopt such a lifestyle, they seem to have conquered a form of freedom that most of us never achieve. It’s that freedom of roaming across the vastness of the American landscape, “no giant demon machine visible in sight”, just a community of people, and the road where they will always meet again.

Living on the road, going west in search of opportunities and establishing a closer relationship with nature is a very American tradition that goes back to the pioneers and the writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau.

Watching Fern wandering from place to place also springs to mind the writings of the Beat Generation. When the woman drives her van across the American wilderness, she seeks something that comes very close to Jack Kerouac’s and Allen Ginsberg’s quest for the absolute in the form of travelling. Those mesmerizing sunsets and long skies on which Zhao’s camera lingers are the same ones that Kerouac vividly described in his writings.

Fern is not just surviving; she is trying to find meaning by pursuing a connection to the earth. As the story unfolds, we understand that she has always been this way; “It’s always what’s out there that’s more interesting to you”, says Fern’s sister; the necessity of discovering what’s behind the horizon drives her. When Fern has the possibility of living in a proper house with Dave (David Strathairn), she prefers to maintain her freedom; having possessions means adhering to a constructed way of life and succumbing to the machinery of capitalism.

Zhao films the story with real poignancy, alternating moments of docu-fiction to powerful lyrical images. There is a moving scene with Fern and Bob Wells (the leader of a nomad community) where the man admits that helping people is what keeps him going through the day. Zhao’s directing doesn’t pity these individuals but shows respect for their humble and honest way of living.

 “I tried to capture a glimpse of the American road in this movie”, explained the director, “knowing it’s not truly possible to describe it to another person. One has to discover it on one’s own”. In her third feature,Zhao evokes the sensations arisen by reading a poem; Nomadland is a visual song of the open road that makes you feel painfully alive.