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 eponymous non-fiction book by Jessica Bruder.
As a consequence of the disastrous economic crisis of 2008, a growing number of people -mostly elderly ones who couldn’t afford paying escalating rents or going into early retirement – ventured out living in vans in search of new opportunities. Fern (McDormand) is one of these people: after her husband’s death and the great recession hitting the city of Empire Nevada – a small town built around its industry – she decides to set off for the open road.
If the woman is initially alone, she soon encounters several individuals who have chosen her same way of living. These are the real nomads that Zhao and McDormand met while filming in the open over four months: Linda, Swankie, Gay. Some are broken spirits on a healing journey, others were growing tired of missing out, or, as one of them declares: “I didn’t want my boat to be out in the drive when I’ll die, and it’s not”. McDormand mixes with the nomads in such a natural way that leads us to forget she isn’t one of them.
Even if in most cases, these people have been forced to adopt such 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 the road, where the nomads will always meet again.
Going west in search of opportunities, but also 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 Fren wandering from place to place also springs to mind the writings of the Beat Generation. One can’t help but think of Kerouac’s and Ginsberg’s quest for the absolute when Fren drives her van into the American wilderness. Those mesmerizing sunsets and long skies that Zhao’s camera seems almost to contemplate, are the same ones so vividly described by Kerouac in his writings.
Fren is not just surviving; she is trying to find meaning by pursuing a connection to the earth. As her character slowly unfolds, it’s suggested that she has always been this way: “It’s what’s out there that’s more interesting to you” says Fern’s sister; the necessity of discovering what’s behind the horizon drives the woman. When Fren is faced with 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 living 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 that sees Fern talking to Bob Wells, the real leader of a community of nomads, where the man says that helping people is what keeps him going through the day. Zhao’s camera doesn’t take pity on 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”. On her third feature, Zhao evokes the sensations usually arisen by reading a poem; Nomadland is a visual song of the open road that makes you feel painfully alive.