By Ali Moosavi.
Not being able to face the world, nor having the moral certitude to take their own lives, they exist in a limbo, an endless night which exists in their mind.”
In director Chloe Zhao’s Nomadland, Fern (Frances McDormand) lives in an old and tattered small RV caravan. She moves from place to place in search of temporary labour jobs normally associated with illegal immigrants; from stacking the shelves at Amazon warehouses to cleaning toilets in public recreation parks. She is very much dependent on the kindness of strangers. From that description, one may feel that we are in the Ken Loach territory. Indeed, Fern shares certain traits with the Daniel Blakes of America. However, she has much more in common with Travis in Wim Wenders’s Paris, Texas. They are both continually on the move, trying to escape; not from anybody but from their past, from their inner demons, from depression, from themselves. Both films were made by directors with non-American cultural backgrounds, utilizing an outsider’s view of the USA. Wenders, German and Zhao, Chinese. In both films the directors have placed their main character against the vast desolate background of American nowhere land, as to magnify their lost and lonely status.
Fern and other “nomads” live in the American hinterlands and group together with their caravans, keeping each other company by sharing stories, food and their sorrows. They’re all running away from the real world in which nothing but despair and depression has been left for them. Fern has lost her loving husband, an old lady she befriends has terminal cancer, an old man in their group has been trying for years to come to terms with the suicide of his young son. He is certain that sometime, sooner rather than later, he’ll see him “down the road”. Not being able to face the world, nor having the moral certitude to take their own lives, they exist in a limbo, an endless night which exists in their mind. When a young girl asks Fern if she is homeless, she replies, no, I’m only houseless. Family and friends continually offer her places to stay, a nice warm room with a big bed and clean sheets, compared to her freezing, cramped caravan. Fern is tempted but knows that staying even one night in such a place will bring back all the memories from which she is escaping.
Nomadland has such natural acting and unobtrusive direction that it feels like a documentary, but Chloe Zhao, aided by her usual cinematographer Joshua James Richards, who has also done the production design, and the music of Ludovico Einaudi has provided a poetic look to the film. Fern gets to talk with a young boy, another lost drifter on the road. She asks him if he has a girl and if so, he could send her a letter, perhaps a poem. He doesn’t know any poems and asks Fern to tell him one. So, she recites Shakespeare’s eighteenth sonnet, which ends with “So long as men can breathe or eyes can see, So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.” In which Shakespeare was addressing a young man and saying that as long as this sonnet survives, the image of that young man will live in it long after the young man has grown old and eventually departed this world. And as long as Nomadland lives, the images of Fern and her friends will live and remind the viewers of some of the people that America seems to have forgotten.
Ali Moosavi has worked in documentary television and has written for Film Magazine (Iran), Cine-Eye (London), and Film International (Sweden). He contributed to the second volume of The Directory of World Cinema: Iran (Intellect, 2015).