Nomadland (Dir. Chloé Zhao) and the Value of Filmmaking

Nomadland is one of my favorite movies of all time. It’s extremely immersive; movies that make me completely forget where I am have a special place in my heart, since they have achieved an astral position in the art, taking advantage of the core aspects of filmmaking, achieving a long lasting connection between the audience and cinema. Nomadland serves the audience a self-explanatory title. The movie puts us in the perspective of Fern. During its runtime we follow her as she travels through her nomadic life, hence the “land” in the title, as nomads do not possess a specific piece of land; their life is their land. With the title’s poetic nature, it introduces audiences into the natural and beautiful world that Chloé Zhao presents us. 

 Nomandland’s camera work and free flow form of editing makes the movie feel extremely natural: the camera follows characters around. It doesn’t cut away to show pointless stand-in shots (of which are just made to show a conversation between one character and another), and it otherwise lingers on characters-however, in this particular case, real nomads-and shows us their emotions, transmitting their thoughts to us. It possesses a documentary-driven way of presenting its shots, as seen with the flow of the camera between conversations, focusing on one person, dictating their lives to the audience, as if it was either a conversation or an interview. This is realized in a scene where Fern has met another nomad, Swankie, and we get to know her life story. In this specific scene, we never cut away from her, we simply watch her dictate her experience. The audience feels a very personal connection to the character, as the camera is being handheld (giving a more raw feeling) and not shying away from showing Swankie’s emotions to the different story beats we witness while watching her explaining who she is and why she lives this life; we get to understand the life that nomads live and step into their shoes.  

The director, Chloé Zhao, is truly a talented filmmaker, and has cemented her place in the industry with this movie with her unique style with her camera work, making shots feel intimate, which places you closer to the characters (she has also just finished directing the Marvel movie Eternals). In addition to its camera work being extremely remarkable, Nomadland‘s free-flow form of editing is appropriate for the type of story this movie wants to tell; a story about human connections, within their specific community, displaying self-reflection and nature. It makes shots that take place far away in time combine seamlessly and lets the viewer listen and appreciate the natural wonders of the world, while also losing track of time when experiencing the movie; many moments in the film have little to no music, and are used to emphasize the human connection with nature. The directing style that Chloé Zhao chose is unique in today’s cinematography, which is dominated by static usage of camera handling and quick succession of scenes with little to almost no character development or an appreciation to the visual art of movies. Because of its uniqueness, you feel the weight of walks, the interaction between characters, and the beauty of nature. 

This style of directing is heavily influenced by Tereance Malick, known for Tree of Life and Thin Red Line, where the camera usually follows the character. Malick’s directing is also similar to Zhao’s in that the movie is mostly composed of isolated events that do connect to the story, but primarily serve to explore the relationships between the characters, as seen with Nomadland. Though it didn’t win best cinematography during the 2021 Oscar Ceremony, the variety of landscape shots from this movie are jaw-dropping and makes us realize the scale of beauty in our world. 

This approach to cinematography makes the movie more personal, allowing the audience to feel more invested in the movie’s main character, Fern, played by Frances McDormand. She delivers one of the most, no pun intended, natural performances ever put to screen. She is magical and unique in her style that is only perfected with each movie she stars in (Fargo, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri). The use of novice actors and actual nomads in this movie elevates it to the highest point in filmmaking as it blends fiction with reality by putting our main character in conversations with these nomads; Fern becomes a vehicle that represents the audience in her journey, which in the end becomes so personal that it can be considered ours as well. Blending fiction with reality (Pseudorealism)  is an aspect famously used in both of the Borat movies to elevate the comedy, presenting genuine reactions and stories from the “characters’ ‘, which in Nomadland’s case, are real people with real stories. 

Nomadland also presents us with the important message of living life to the fullest, and with the current times we are living in, this message couldn’t be more important. The way the Nomads live in nature presented a lifestyle I wasn’t really aware of; seeing it realized in film made me very emotional and touched by how the Nomads live in harmony with nature. Alongside their harmonious way of life they learn to appreciate people, relationships,  the world, their belongings and finally and the present. In a world where I see that more and more people are consumed by their preoccupation with the possible future or regretting decisions from the past and consequently only thinking about it, Nomadland becomes a movie that can help the audience connect with the present and appreciate the little moments that occur in the blink of an eye. 

Alongside the Nomads’ lifestyle, another aspect that Nomadland brings to discussion is the aspect of loneliness. As Chloe Zhao put it, “the process of making a movie can be very lonely, and I think it relates to the lives of Nomads and how it can get lonely, but because of other people that live in the same way, you find communion”. The beautiful message of communion and bondage from Nomads can only be replicated through film or experience, and in this movie it is exemplified thoroughly as Fern jumps from place to place, either meeting new people or accompanied by others. The feature film gives us insight into individuals and their struggles, which helps reinforce the value of filmmaking and its purpose as a whole: to replicate human life and to understand the human condition. 

Learning about one character’s ambitious journey to reach the peak of a mountain, their struggles with their family of living a nomad life, and consequently being a victim of cancer strikes the emotional core of viewers, and touches on our empathy and our ability to understand others. Among a plethora of mediocre movies in the mainstream age that have little to no profound meaning to them, came Nomadland, a unique movie; the most colorful fish in a sea full of grey ones. 

In summary, movies like Nomadland represent the value of filmmaking and what the medium can achieve, and are relevant to the current situation we live in. The pandemic has been a tough time for us all, and has made it difficult for us to live the life we deserve. Like the philosophy of life Nomadland presents us, let’s enjoy the moments we have here in the most personally meaningful way.