Film: “Nomadland”, or the dark side of vanlife, crowned at the “Golden Globes”

The 78th Golden Globes ceremony, which took place in Hollywood, Sunday February 28, was right this year by awarding two prizes to the overwhelming “Nomadland” This film, halfway between fiction and reportage, which we present to you we spoke recently, shows the daily life of thousands of American “vanlifers” thrown on the roads following the vagaries of life.

Consecration yesterday in Hollywood for Chloé Zhao, Chinese director named “best director”. She thus becomes the second woman to win this trophy. However, the only star of “Nomadland”, Frances McDormand – Oscar winner who shares the screen with amateur actors actually living on the road all year round – wins the “Best Actress” award. Already Lion d’Or at the Venice Film Festival in 2020, this film is based on the fascinating investigation by Jessica Bruder published in France in a pocket edition, to read urgently. Already released in theaters in the United States, “Nomadland” had convinced our journalist Chris Moody, ex “vanlifer”, too.

When I was living in a van full time – before the pandemic – I spent a while in San Diego on the California coast, a city where it was common to meet people living in their cars. The climate is pleasant all year round; enough to encourage an entire community, each day more important, to settle in a van or, failing that, in a station wagon. It was a lifestyle choice. At the same time, the housing shortage and soaring rental prices have led thousands of people to live in their vehicles, simply because they had nowhere to take refuge.

These two communities regularly shared the same sites, and, despite their differences, the boundaries between them were often quite blurred. All lived in dwellings on wheels, installed in public parking lots, by the sea. But not all of them had the privilege of having chosen this fate, an element often a factor of division.

The great forgotten of the “vanlife”

With the growing popularity of vanlife, in the United States, like around the world, those who live in vehicles out of necessity, especially the elderly, are often overlooked. “Nomadland,” corrects this injustice. Chloé Zhao’s new feature film sheds light on the daily life of these baby boomers forced to hit the road after the 2008 financial crash. Https:// Feature = oembed

The film, released on February 19 in the United States, initially scheduled for February 24 in France, follows Fern (played by Frances McDormand), a widow in her sixties who lives in an old van she uses to find seasonal work across the United States. Fern once worked for the US Gypsum Corporation in Empire, Nevada, but the company went bankrupt, turning Empire into a ghost town. With her meager savings, she decides to move into an old used pickup truck. Along the way, Fern meets other victims of the crisis who, too, are trying to make the most of what they try to see as the tumultuous third act of a life further and further removed from the American dream.

The chance of encounters led her to participate in the ” Rubber Tramp Rendezvous“, Sort of Burning Man organized in Arizona, considered the world’s largest gathering of nomadic travelers, where she meets (real) Bob Wells, YouTube star, a legend in the vanlifer community. Fern is ruthless with lucidity: for him, Fern is just another “beast of burden” more, ready to work until death. To survive, everyone has to come together. This is the whole purpose of the gathering that he animates. There the more experienced participants teach others the basics of life on the road: how to maintain your van, find safe places to sleep and build your own toilet.

At the heart of the Amazon system

Fern is part of this army of individuals condemned to become invisible. Senior, she lives alone and still works, with no hope of retirement in sight. When we meet her, she has a job in an Amazon warehouse and lives in a parking lot run by the mail order giant. An operating system which the remarkable investigation of Jessica Bruder, at the origin of the film, dismantles all the functioning by the detail.

When Fern’s employment contract expires in winter – along with the right to park her vehicle on her employer’s property – she has to leave the premises. Then begins a whole series of odd jobs that take her to the four corners of the country to polish semi-precious stones in a mineral store, to clean toilets in a campsite, to prepare burgers in a café or to harvest sugar beets.

Move, according to the seasons

Like many Americans her age, Fern built her life around a single business that she relied on for everything: income, housing, health insurance, and security. But all of this suddenly vanished. Anyone who has ever lost their job knows how helpless you can be. This film will resonate with all those who experienced this situation following the 2008 financial crisis, or, more recently, the COVID-19 pandemic.

After I was laid off in 2018, my wife and I sold what we could and traded our apartment for a used Ram ProMaster – a sort of homemade motorhome we lived in for almost two years. In this living space of only 22m2, no heating or air conditioning, so we moved according to the seasons, always further south in winter, and due north in summer. Sometimes joining caravans of nomads or, more often than not, isolated in the heart of nature, or even discreetly installed in the heart of cities.

But we were fully aware of being privileged. Young couple without children, we had jobs allowing teleworking and we had chosen this life. We did not endure it.

On Insta, idyllic photos

Vanlife, or nomadic life, has become very trendy in recent years, teleworking has become popular and technology is making things much simpler today. The ubiquity of social media has helped fuel this boom. Idyllic videos have taken over the internet. But, very often, they mask with great shots of filters all the disadvantages of this way of life. The hashtag #vanlife fills Instagram with photos of sun-thirsty twenties practicing yoga on $ 100,000 vans, straight out of a magical world bathed in eternally golden light. It’s a fantasy land where everyone is young, beautiful, and doing exciting things.

Nomadland has nothing to do with these people. In fact, there are hardly any young people in this film which rather shows another facet of nomadic life. Very real, she. And without any filter. For many people today, the nomadic life is not a way of life, a quest for adventure or a way to establish oneself as an “influencer”, but a question of necessity, survival and courage. For them, no sponsored posts, hashtags, or “likes”.

“Get out, no parking here!” “

The film also shows with finesse the tensions that may exist between those who are lucky enough to live in their vehicle for pleasure and those who do so to survive. When Fern and a few friends visit a brand new luxury van, they can’t help but fantasize about what it would be like to live “the good life” in such a fancy vehicle, traveling just for the fun of it and not for the fun of it. obligation. “It’s as beautiful as the lounge of a private club”, marvels one of the women once inside the rolling palace with several bedrooms and… even a washing and drying machine!

Those who have spent time on the road will find themselves in Nomadland: all those times when you are sick like a dog, and where you are stuck in your 15m2 with your micro toilets. Anytime you discover a flat tire when a storm hits. Also the times when strangers suddenly knock on your window in the middle of the night, when you are sleeping to tell you to “get out, not have the right to sit here!” “. Not to mention the misunderstanding of your friends and family who don’t always understand why you live like this. A scene from the film is very enlightening on this point: Fern, who has landed for a while to rest in a sporting goods store, crosses paths with an old friend who is shopping with her daughter. “Are you still in your van,” she asks him? “We’re worried about you! “. And the daughter to ask: “My mother says you are homeless. It’s true ? “. “I am not homeless,” replies Fern. “I’m just homeless. This is where all the difference is. Desired or not.

Real characters

Nomadland is not a documentary, but one could almost mistake it so much fiction and reality are intertwined. Frances McDormand is one of the few professional actresses in the credits.The rest of the cast is made up of real nomads who play their own characters.

Bob Wells is one of the main ones. So is Linda May, whom viewers might recognize from Jessica Bruder’s book, “Nomadland. Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century ”, by Jessica Bruder, on which the film is based. Much like Fern, the real Linda May, single in her sixties, lived full time in a small RV she called “The Squeeze Inn” and worked across the country as a camp sitter. The choice to feature normal people and shoot outdoors in places like the Badlands in South Dakota and the Arizona desert allowed the film to present a true subculture and highlight the strengths. economic factors that created it.

In her shoot, Chloe Zhao took a low-key and unorthodox approach. To better blend in with the scenery, the film crew – including Chloé Zhao herself – lived in vans alongside the nomads in the film. And the director asked those who played their own roles to tell their personal stories in their own words. In one scene, we see Fern joining a group of “nomads” sitting around a campfire and listening to them tell how they ended up living like this. A very strong and unscripted scene from the film. “It was 100% true,” Bob Wells tells me. “I know these people. I know their stories. I’ve heard them before. What you saw around the campfire was these people and their lives. “

The film also captures lovely moments and captures the adventurous pace of life on the road. We then see Fern oscillating between warm exchanges within a joyful community and moments of overwhelming loneliness. Friends disappear as quickly as they appear, leaving behind nothing but dust as they move away to better weather or a new job. Many of the scenes in Nomadland were shot at sunset, a choice that gives off a beautiful but somewhat unsettling light. Because we can not help but have a feeling of vertigo at the idea of ​​all these vanlifers who tirelessly take to the road. Towards a new elsewhere. Where exactly? Without any particular purpose in the end. Just “elsewhere”. “There is always another place. They say.

Released in theaters in the United States on February 19, “Nomadland” was expected in France for February 24. Release delayed due to pandemic, unfortunately. In the meantime, some will already be able to see it via VPN streaming on Hulu. But in the meantime, we can only recommend you reading Jessica Bruder’s book (also titled ‘Nomadland’ which has just been released in a pocket edition by J’ai Lu. A remarkable survey that reads like a novel.


Header photo: Nomadland film production

Themes :
United States

We would like to give thanks to the author of this post for this incredible material

Film: “Nomadland”, or the dark side of vanlife, crowned at the “Golden Globes”

Hank Gilbert