It seems amazing to the off-grid and van-dwelling communities that a low-budget docudrama about life on the road could be about to receive a large handful of Oscars at the ceremony later this month.
The movie Nomadland even has a scene about how to go to the toilet when you are living in a van with a kindly, elderly lady demonstrating the size of bucket you need.
The Director, Chloe Zhao is the daughter of a Chinese self-made billionaire, and it’s even more surprising that a woman like her would want to make a movie like this. Zhao’s previous two films were reinterpretations of the classic Western, and “Chloe had been looking to make a movie about young van dwellers”, said journalist Jessica Bruder, author of the book Nomadland on which the movie is closely based.
Bruder is a burner – a regular visitor to the annual Burning Man festival. She found the theme for her book in the nearby town of Empire, when the sole employer closed the factory, and the community scattered to the four winds. Even the zip code was cancelled.
Her 2017 book was optioned by a couple of producers close to Frances McDormand (of Three Billboards fame), and when they approached Chloe Zhao, says Bruder, Chloe switched her focus from young van-dwellers to the older generation of vandwellers in the USA – the ones who call themselves Snowbirds – because they flock down south together in the winter months.
The film is about the sense of community, and the loneliness, and the constant search for work which makes them analogous to the cow-pokes of old, who would head where the work was. But for this generation (at least in the movie), the main employer is Amazon, rather than a cattle farm. And the seasonal work is mainly in the run-up to Thanksgiving.
These modern cowboys and girls are people of what used to be called retirement age – 60-somethings who through bad luck or bad judgement had ended up outside the safety net of pension and medical care – the film is stuffed with characters played by real people who really live on the road, and their stories are mostly to do with divorces that decimated their savings, or an illness that reduced their ability to earn. At that age, it’s understandable that very few opted for this life out of choice. Most feel it’s something they were forced into. It’s only the younger age groups where two big things have changed. Firstly, the idea of a job for life and a mortgage for life are just not on the radar for many young people. And just as important, – the technology has enabled a different mindset, mobile technology means you can be warm and comfortable anywhere you can locate some solar panels and a battery. And the internet means you can work from anywhere – if you can work from anywhere why would you want to live somewhere in particular? Especially if you don’t have kids.
The lead character in Bruder’s book is Linda May, a 60-something who’s been dealt a series of hard knocks, but overcame alcoholism two decades earlier. In the movie McDormand plays Fern – who is composite of people on the road but also our guide into this world, played with the same watchful reserve that Bruder also displays as she Zooms me from her Brooklyn home.
“So many times [in the book] people are reacting to me and teaching me things,” Bruder said – and Fern “retraces her journey through this world – a proxy for the viewer.” The story is a simple one of Fern setting out from her home, and becoming a van dweller, able to have a life “of her own,” says Bruder. Her own choices, her own decisions, her own mistakes. It’s all about the freedom for Bruder. Because the freedom that we all assume is part of democracy, part of the America Dream, is all illusory says Bruder.
“We are starting to release the dream may never have been alive – it was never for everyone.” And now that so many of the van dwellers depend on Amazon for their pay,
“The growth of Amazon is part of the same structure as the growth of people on the road – the growth of giant corporations, the erosion of monopoly law. “Many of the workers I met in the Amazon camps were part of a demographic that in recent years has grown with alarming speed: Older downwardly mobile Americans.”
Linda’s income is mainly from working at giant Amazon warehouses which have all set themselves up (as part of a companywide policy) with campgrounds, specifically so they can employ steady, dependable, honest, older people. They don’t complain, They don’t form Unions, They are pathetically grateful for the minimum wage pay. The most common complaint is that working a 12-hour shift walking around on concrete floors is very stressful for the ankles and joints. Bruder wrote in the book that “Amazon had wall-mounted dispensers offering free over-the-counter painkillers in the warehouse “
Thank about that the next time you are considering ordering from Amazon. However, there is a mutual assistance in the pact between the vandwellers and the megacorporation. Amazon did not make them homeless (or rather “houseless” as Fern prefers to be known. And Amazon has modified its own practices to accommodate these itinerant new, aging cowboys of the road. But if the Unions are not allowed into Amazon, then its clear Bruder believes that governments should regulate to stop the exploitation currently taking place.
Not that the government has done much to help people who live in vans until now. “Something I observed while writing in towns all over America,” says Bruder is that the law is “essentially criminalising people who don’t live in conventional housing –there are more and more laws that make it difficult for people to live in a vehicle. I was speaking to someone in Seattle where a 72-hour parking rule was suspended for the pandemic. It’s about to be enforced again. They were terrified that people would be getting ticketed, getting towed.” And in the precarious economy of a vandweller/Amazon worker – one ticket can upset the entire domestic economy. “You need a specific address – that forces people who are on the road to have fake addresses.” Suppose your ticket arrives there just after you have done your 3-monthly check of the mail. Next thing you know you are delinquent on a traffic violation.
But Bruder is sure the number of vehicular nomads will keep on growing. “They are analogous to what biologists call an “indicator species”—sensitive organisms with the capacity to signal much larger shifts in an ecosystem,” She wrote in her book, published in 2017. “People weren’t talking about people in RVs around Silicon Valley who worked in service industries, its already grown quite a bit – and could grow substantially larger – we keep kicking the eviction moratorium down the road…. but inevitable we will be facing a surge of evictions at some point.”
That is when all the issues of Nomadland will bubble over from the cinema screen into the real world – it’s coming very soon now…later this year.
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