Who is Chloé Zhao, Oscar winning director of Nomadland

Chinese filmmaker Chloé Zhao made history, becoming the first Asian woman to win an Academy Award as well as a Golden Globe for Best Director for Nomadland.

Last update on 26 April 2021

The 93rd Academy Award ceremony held on 25th April confirmed that Chloé Zhao is one of the most celebrated and talented directors in international cinema. After the twofold success at the Golden Globes on the 28th February – when the Chinese filmmaker won two of the event’s most prestigious awards (for Best Director and Best Motion Picture – Drama) – the Nomadland director triumphed in the Best Director and Best Film categories at the Oscars.

Zhao is therefore the first-ever Asian woman to be awarded the Best Director prize and the second-ever woman to win it both at the Academy Awards and Golden Globes; accolades received by other female directors before her, respectively Kathryn Bigelow for The Hurt Locker in 2010 and Barbra Streisand for Yentl in 1984.

Francesc McDormand, Nomadland
Shooting for Nomadland began in South Dakota in September 2018 and lasted for six months, moving across Nebraska and Nevada, near the Black Rock desert © Searchlight Pictures

Zhao’s achievement is also accompanied by other important records: for the first time at the Oscars, two women were nominated in the Best Director category, namely Zhao and Emerald Fennell for Promising Young Woman, and three of them were nominated for the equivalent Golden Globe; Zhao, Fennell and Regina King, who directed One Night in Miami. These nominations send a very important signal to an industry in which a problematic gender gap still exists.

In her acceptance speeches, Zhao thanked the team who worked on the film, her family, and the whole nomad community with whom she collaborated. Zhao also quoted one of the members of this community: “Compassion is the breakdown of barriers between us. A heart-to-heart bonding. Your pain is my pain is mingled and shared between us”. This connection is at the heart of her love for cinema.

This is why I fell in love with making movies and telling stories, cause they give us a chance to laugh and cry together and they give us a chance to learn from each other and to have more compassion for each other.

Chloé Zhao, director of Nomadland

Nomadland: the story

Chloé Zhao’s film was inspired by Jessica Bruder‘s book Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century. Its protagonist, Fern (Frances McDormand), is a sixty-one-year-old woman who lost her husband and all her possessions because of the Great Recession – the global financial crisis that began in the US and caused untold misery throughout the world between 2007 and 2013. Following the economic collapse of Empire, the Nevada mining town where she lives, Fern decides to set out westwards in a van that will become her home.

Empire was an industrial city that for years was home to generations of gypsum miners, before it was erased due to the Great Recession, during which they were all evicted. Even the Postal Service was cancelled.

Jessica Bruder, author of Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century

Fern’s journey will transform into an exploration of new places and the discovery of an unfamiliar dimension, far away from conventional society. By meeting the nomad community and through her friendship with Dave (David Strathairn), Fern finds a new independence “in nature, in wildlands, in rocks, in trees, in the stars, in a hurricane,” Chloé Zhao explains.

“As Fern, I worked with the real employees of an Amazon distribution centre, in a sugarbeet plantation, in a bar at a tourist attraction, and as a camp host in a National Park,” Frances McDormand recounts. “In most cases, no one recognised me and everyone thought I was just an employee like any other. Of course, I didn’t work all the hours that these jobs require. But we did try to communicate the impression of real work and its consequences: the physical challenges and discomfort faced by an older person, but also the joy of working in nature as a camp host in a National Park, the feeling of having a purpose, and the earnings available thanks to these jobs”.

Linda May, Swankie, and Bob Wells – mentors and companions chosen by Zhao among the US nomad community – accompany the protagonist and the audience on a journey of discovery across the vast landscape of the American West, from the South Dakota Badlands to the Nevada Desert and the Pacific Coast.

Chloé Zhao, Nomadland
Frances McDormand and director Chloé Zhao on the set of Nomadland © Searchlight Pictures

Chloé Zhao’s success

Chloé Zhao‘s wins at the 2021 Oscars and Golden Globes came in the wake of a long series of prestigious awards and unanimous international critical recognition. Nomadland won the People’s Choice Award at Toronto International Film Festival and the Golden Lion at Venice Film Festival, as well as dozens of other prizes. The triumph of this road movie set in the world of modern American nomads shows no sign of letting up. Frances McDormand also played a big part in the film’s success, in her double role as protagonist and producer, earning a Golden Globe Best Actress nomination for her performance. McDormand originally contacted Zhao about the project after seeing her film The Rider, which she said was “one of the best things I’ve seen recently”. Together with producer Peter Spears, McDormand had acquired the film rights for Bruder’s book, and Zhao was chosen as the ideal director for the project.

This won’t be the last you hear about Chloé Zhao

Born in 1982 and raised in Beijing, Chloé Zhao (born Zhao Ting) also lived in Brighton, UK before moving to the United States, where she studied political science before moving on to film production at New York University. Zhao currently lives in California, where her personal history and passport represent the diversity and inclusion which Hollywood more and more often looks for nowadays.

Chloé Zhao, Nomadland, set
The director cast several real American nomads in her film © Searchlight Pictures

Nomadland is Chloé Zhao’s third film. She made her name on the festival circuit with her first two independent features, with many in the know pointing to her as one to watch. Her first feature film as screenwriter, director, and producer was Songs My Brother Taught Me, which premiered at Sundance Film Festival in 2015, set on Pine Ridge Indian Reservation with two Sioux brothers as protagonists.

Zhao’s second directorial feature was The Rider, a modern western featuring a real cowboy that was awarded the Art Cinema Award at Cannes Festival’s Quinzaine des Réalisateurs.

These films have a lot in common with Nomadland, from the social realism through which the camera reveals hidden characters, unfamiliar realities, and alternative lifestyles, to the crepuscular and evocative landscapes that act as backgrounds to personal stories and fraternal connections. The storytelling consistently highlights a poetic and deeply personal perspective.

This approach didn’t just get the attention and esteem of a veteran like Frances McDormand, but it even convinced a colossus like Marvel Studios to choose Zhao as director of the upcoming, long-awaited blockbuster The Eternals. The director has revealed that she was given lots of room to manoeuvre on this project, which is set for release on 5th November 2021 in the US, with a stellar cast that includes Richard MaddenAngelina Jolie, and Salma Hayek.

The Eternals, Comicon
The cast of The Eternals at the Marvel Studios panel, San Diego Comic-Con, 2019 © Getty Images

This film is a decisive change of genre from the director’s other films but there are rumours that producers have been excited by Zhao’s work, further tantalising the curiosity of fans of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

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