About the Blog
This blog reviews a beautiful film written and directed by Chloe Zhao, and based on a recent non-fiction book – Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century by Jessica Bruder.
I would like to begin with a note of gratitude to Gouranga Chattopadhyay, a teacher and a mentor, who is not keeping well these days. Amongst many other gifts that Gouranga has generously offered me and very many others across the world, is that of discerning and celebrating the ‘nomad’ within.
Zhao and Frances McDormand, who also produces the film, present the journey of Fern (played by McDormand), who is recently widowed, and has had to quit her home, her employment, and her world, to retreat into a van and live like a nomad. The film speaks of a journey for Fern as she wanders and meanders through small towns, stony deserts, and cold flatlands of an America that never makes it to the front-pages.
The cinematography is exquisite and set against overwhelming skies and flatlands across Nevada, South Dakota, and Arizona, are a staccato of conversations with fellow nomads (real nomads and not actors) that are often deeply insightful, compassionate, and replete with love.
As you fasten the seatbelts and prepare to witness Fern’s journey, Zhao gently but firmly confronts some of your deepest fears of growing old – being alone, left to one’s devices, and condemned to survive without the comforts of a home or a loving family. It is not a wild rollercoaster of a ride – but an inward journey that questions many an aspect of ‘becoming’ or of ‘purpose’ that overwhelm us today as well as a calling to heal with nature and make peace with the living and the dead.
Nomadland as beautifully crafted narrative, inviting us to see through our own façade of pity for the nomads that shrouds our inner anxieties and fears … and to embrace the humanness of Fern and other nomads as each character prepares for existential isolation, or the inevitable death or to confront the emptiness of life.
Skills & Survival
The first thing that strikes you is the sheer breadth and depth of skills Fern has had to learn to survive – she is a teacher, a worker at the factory, an Amazon fulfillment temp, a camp host, a cook at a local restaurant, a loader at a sugar beet processing plant … Zhao talks about an America where one is constantly witnessing obsolescence in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. The communities that ought to be there as the safety nets for an older population is non-existent and much of the responsibilities to survive and see the next day is on one’s agency.
Most societies across the world are celebrating ‘agency’ – very much a young man’s or young woman’s role on a stage of market capitalism and neo-liberalism. Zhao and McDormand direct our attention to the silent exits of the old and the frail from this pantomime of agency celebrations. Yet, none of the characters have time to be a victim – there are no laments – but the show goes on but a bit more meekly and subtly. Survival means depending on no other but on oneself – remain independent, know how to be self-sufficient and know how to repair a frayed tire.
The Commune with Nature
The desert of Arizona becomes both an oasis for Fern as she encounters other nomads, as well as the exile from an earlier world. It is the commune with nature that offers Fern some healing while the desert simultaneously attempts to see her getting lost and perhaps die.
Bob Wells who is a ‘vandweller’ and advocates a minimalist and nomadic lifestyle, provides for the oasis in the desert – the oasis comes in the form of the Rubber Tramp Rendezvous in Quartzsite Arizona. Bob has created a support system for fellow nomads, where apart from evangelizing a simpler living and rejecting the normative of modern society, he also anchors spaces for dialogue, reflexivity, self-disclosure, and catharsis for the groups.
Fern and Bob are able to connect and cathect deeper as the journey continues and without spilling the beans, the movie speaks of Fern’s commitment to vandwelling despite many a seduction – including the possibilities of a loving and caring family.
The End? New Beginnings …
During the pandemic lows and feeling really overwhelmed with the dystopian context in India, the movie has been somewhat a soothing experience – of calmness, of non-melodramatic resolves, and of conversing with the Nomad within.
For me, personally, the narrative has been extremely evocative and beautiful. As once Gourango had elegantly defined a key threshold for me – how do I choose to straddle the polarity of being a Nomad and being a Settler. In many ways the narrative asks to choose between being a Nomad and becoming of a Settler – and that there is nothing wrong about it either way …
This becomes my first blog after 6 months of a dry spell of sullen silence on my part …