In defense of Nomads

May 03, 2021 11:07
Director/Producer Chloe Zhao, winner of the award for best picture for "Nomadland," Photo: Reuters

Nomadland reveals an America driven apart by sociocultural divides, economic downturn, and the crumbling of communities and neighbourhoods under the weight of gentrification and political polarisation. It is as much an invigorated indictment, as a poignant reflection upon what it means to be a citizen – what it means to be free; what it means to have a Home. Indeed, at times like these, when Home is less of a constant than it ever has been in our history, the movie’s aftertaste is bittersweet – bitter in its stark depiction of a cruel yet truthful reality; sweet, in that it leaves us pondering what it means to exist, to thrive, to have a home beyond a roof.

It is against the backdrop of Trump’s America – both America under Trump, and the America that gave rise to Trump – that Oscars-winning director Zhao Ting (Chloé) prudently chose her protagonist. The female lead – portrayed by the inimitable Frances McDormand – is a recently widowed vandweller. As she sets off across the country in pursuit of employment – and a new anchor, or purpose, to her life – she encounters other nomads, individuals who constitute the ‘underbelly’ of America, often relegated to being the subjects of cold statistics compiled and consumed by nonchalant bureaucrats and the intransigent bureaucracy.

As I watched the movie (in a socially distanced and sparsely attended cinema in Kowloon), I was struck by the resemblance between Zhao’s life, and the lives of the protagonists in her movie. Now don’t get me wrong – I’m not suggesting Zhao is a downtrodden, destitute nomad, or, indeed, resemblant of the socioeconomic plight befalling the nomads in the picture. Nor am I suggesting that Zhao created the movie with her own life in mind – there’s no way I could reasonably interpret authorial intentions veraciously, given I do not know Zhao, and, as far as the public is concerned, Zhao has made scant mention of anything that would lend credibility to the autobiographical thesis.

Zhao can indeed be viewed as a Nomad of sorts. She is also an unlikely heroine.

Born in a family well-nested within the upper echelons of the state-run economy (her father was a senior executive at Shougang Industries, her step-mother a prominent actress), Zhao found herself often at odds with the constrictive environment and education in which she was raised. In a recent interview, she professed that she was a “rebellious teen”, who was “lazy at school” and drew manga as a means of escaping the mundane vicissitudes of life in Beijing. The ultimate escape, of course, came in the form of a cultural shock – she was sent to board at Brighton College in the idyllic coastal city, prior to pursuing her high school and university education in America.

Upon graduating, and in an industry that is often driven and steered by powerful, privileged white men, Zhao was an anomaly. She turned to independent filmmaking – directing critically acclaimed hits such as Songs My Brothers Taught Me and The Rider, the former a tour de force musing on the essence of sibling relationships; the latter an empathetic Bildungsroman story centered around a cowboy. Zhao’s professional interests and work straddle a multitude of genres, ranging from soul-searching dramas to heavy-hitting social commentary (Nomadland), from popular blockbusters (Eternals) to tender relationship sketches. Her ‘nomadic’ production ethic is one that has opened the doors for many an independent actor under her watch – yet also one that has propelled the popularisation of stories and dramas about ‘small characters’, folks who are neither movers nor shakers, yet comprise the backbone of the America that Zhao has grown to love (though not call Home).

Beyond her artistic repertoire, however, Zhao is also a nomad that move and speak across cultural spaces and communities. She draws upon her Chinese heritage and legacy in her advocacy of greater inclusion and representation of actors that have been historically excluded from Hollywood and major movie studios. She also fuses her production values with an outlook of civic humanism epitomised by the adage, “We are born benign.” (人之初,性本善), which she proudly declared at the Academy Awards. Her compassion for her protagonists is unreserved and unconditional, yet comes with incisive critique and commentary on the structures that undergird their lives – rather Confucian undertones, if you ask me.

Yet Zhao is equally cosmopolitan. She sees herself not through the narrow categories of “Chinese” or “American” – a strategic, or perhaps genuine, kind of ambiguity that has landed her in hot water with ardent nationalists in Mainland China, as well as those who view Americanness as a sacrosanct, all-or-nothing identity category. Her commentary on the state of China – or, more precisely, an off-hand remark she made 8 years ago – became the butt of substantial flak amongst netizens in China. Indeed, references to Zhao and her victory were swiftly removed in the aftermath of her Oscars victory.

Now, I have a slightly controversial take – I think the world needs more Nomads: Nomads that can move across national borders, who can speak to the ills and despairs and concerns of peoples irrespective of their ethnicity or background, who can tell stories in a fair-handed, sympathetic yet holistic manner; who are willing to take on structures and dogma and conventions – whilst preserving, as much as is possible, an authentic outlook in life. Nomads are an apt analogy for the many who find themselves caught in the crossfire amidst escalating tensions – including those, indeed, who have been forced into playing a Sisyphean role of mediating between conflicting parties and countries.

Having a Home is a privilege. Having more than one Home is a luxury. The times that we live in… are times when great power politics is threatening to uproot us from our Homes – to purge us of a sense of belonging, to force us to choose between faux options, with neither of them being the ideal option. Politics forces us to take sides, yet Nomads take no sides. That, perhaps, is why we need more Nomads in the world.

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Editor-in-Chief, Oxford Political Review