Nomadland: From Book to Screen

It first started with journalist Jessica Bruder camping in a tent then later in a van for three winters in the desert around Quartzsite, Arizona. Her plan was to get acquainted with a group of modern-day nomads living in RV’s, vans, and car campers. Bruder’s three-year research resulted in the non-fiction book Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twentieth-first Century (2017), an eye-opening account of a fringe population growing in large numbers after the 2008 financial meltdown. Many of the nomads were once middle-class Americans who had lost their jobs, homes, investments and retirement savings during the economic crisis.

Bob Wells, who started the website CheapRVLiving.com in 2005, is the guru of nomadic living. But it was after the 2008 economic catastrophe that he saw the traffic to his site ‘exploded’. Linda May and Swankie are two of these nomads in their 60’s and 70’s. To sustain their living, many become migrant workers doing seasonal work and hard labour in Amazon warehouses to earn minimal wages.

Bruder’s book is rich in data and testimonials. While offering an in-depth look at how the nomads not only survive on bare essentials but how they find community, friendship and support, at the same time, it is a scathing social commentary on the human toll of the 2008 financial meltdown, and a stark revealing of exploitive employment of a vulnerable, elderly labor force.

What follows is intriguing. One of my first questions to ask Frances McDormand if I had the chance to interview her would be why she thought Bruder’s non-fiction work, though exceptional, would make a good movie so much so that she acquired its film rights.

Cut to the Toronto International Film Festival, September, 2017, where the film Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri starring McDormand was screened. Stepping out of a press junket for her film, McDormand went to catch another TIFF selection, The Rider directed by Chloe Zhao. After watching, she knew who she’d want to direct the movie adaptation of Nomadland.

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Frances McDormand and Chloe Zhao on the set of Nomadland. Photo by Joshua James Richards

Adhering to her first two features, Songs my Brothers Taught Me and The Rider, director Chloé Zhao casts real-life, non-professionals to play a cinematic version of themselves. She shot her debut work in the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota and have Lakota youth tell their story. For The Rider, about a cowboy facing the end of his career after a fall during a rodeo resulting in a traumatic head injury, Zhao casts a real life bronco who’d suffered a similar tragedy to play himself.

Zhao’s signature naturalistic rendering is how she styles the adaptation of Nomadland. Real life nomads in Bruder’s book, Linda May, Swankie, Bob Wells among others all appear as themselves, enhancing authenticity. To develop a narrative vein, Zhao creates two fictional characters, Fern (Frances McDormand) and Dave (David Strathairn), to weave among them.

In the film, an unadorned McDormand, spot-on with her weary and dishevelled looks as Fern, mingles and makes friends with the nomads, learning the ropes of self-sufficiency. With Linda May, she works as a camp host and as a warehouse worker with Amazon’s CamperForce. Through the dialogues, some of Bruder’s researched data and testimonials flow out naturally.

Born in Beijing, China, Zhao was uprooted when just a teenager to travel to the UK for school and later to the US. She graduated from college in Massachusetts, after that attended NYU Tisch School of the Arts and is now living in California. Her diasporic experience is itself a kind of a nomadic journey. It could well be that her liminal identity, an insider-outsider multiplicity, has equipped her with a unique point of view as a filmmaker.

Shot in five Western States on location where nomads frequent, the film Nomadland is essentially about one woman’s journey towards healing as she takes to the road. Fern and her husband Bo had long worked for US Gypsum and built their home and community in the company town Empire, Nevada. When Bo died of cancer, and later the whole town disappeared from the map as US Gypsum shut down its plant in 2011 after 88 years, Fern stayed in her company house till the very end. There’s this poignant dialogue when she talks to Bob Wells:

“Bo never knew his parents and we never had kids. If I didn’t stay, if I left, it would be like he never existed… It’s like my dad used to say: ‘What’s remembered lives.’ ”

From a non-fiction book on nomads surviving America, Zhao has turned it into a humanistic, personal narrative of loss and healing. While the book is more explicit in its critique and social commentary, Zhao’s film exudes a tone of acceptance, as her focus is not so much on societal ills or corporate greed but the humanity of the characters.

The camera follows Fern in her attempts to connect her past with her present, as she travels down the road to an unknown future. Shot in the magic hour of dawn and dusk and accompanied by the pensive score by Ludovico Einaudi (The Father, 2020), cinematographer Joshua James Richards (The Rider, 2017) knows when to capture Nature’s golden light to elicit depth and allow time for thoughts. While nature is a healer––and we see many soul-stirring scenes reminiscent of Terrence Malick––Fern’s journey to recovery rests in the memories of the ones she still loves even though they have all departed.

And with that, Zhao invokes The Bard. In the latter part of the film, Fern meets a young drifter Derek again and they chat. Derek is lost for words when writing letters to his girlfriend. Fern suggests he uses a poem, and upon his prompting, she shares the one she used as her wedding vow, Sonnet 18. When two characters sitting on gravel ground beside a makeshift fire for warmth adjacent a highway and one recites a Shakespearean love sonnet, it seems incompatible with the setting. But then, why would it be?

What follows is probably the most beautiful sequence in the film. From memory, Fern starts: “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?/Thou art more lovely and more temperate…” As she goes on, the camera shifts to the evening sky and finally rests on Fern in the van looking at slides of her dad, mom, sister, and herself as a young child as we hear her voice-over continuing with the sonnet towards the last lines: “So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see/So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.” Thereafter, the camera follows Fern to the redwood forest, where her outstretched arms can only span a tiny portion of a tree trunk, herself minuscule in comparison.

Thus she drives on to a destination unknown. And ‘this’ that gives life could be two-fold. Nature and her memories of loved ones, not a sonnet written with words but one etched deep in her heart.

~ ~ ~ ~ Ripples

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Nomadland won Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actress at the 2021 Academy Awards, among 230 other wins internationally.

Jessica Bruder, Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century (W. W. Norton & Company, 2017) 273 pp., hardcover. The book won Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers Award. Jessica Bruder is an adjunct professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.

This article also posted on Shiny New Books. Do check them out.

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Other Related Ripple Reviews:

Nomadland: A Book Review

The Rider is Poetry on Screen

Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri

‘Minari’: The Little Seed that Could

Minari is a semi-autobiographical narrative based on director Lee Isaac Chung’s childhood experience. It tells the story of a Korean immigrant father striving to succeed in America while his wife strains to keep their family together. In the midst of the struggle for a better life, two children watch and learn and grow. 

Chung’s counterpart in the movie, seven-year-old David (Alan Kim), follows his parents Jacob Yi (Steven Yeun) and Monica (Yeri Han), together with his older sister Anne (Noel Kate Cho), to relocate from California to rural Arkansas in the 1980’s. Driven by the ambition to be successful, especially in the eyes of his children, Jacob has purchased 50 acres of land to start a farm growing Korean produce. With the influx of Korean immigrants coming into the country during that time, Jacob sees a wealth of opportunity.

MINARI_00195_R Alan S. Kim, Steven Yeun Director Lee Isaac Chung Credit: Melissa Lukenbaugh/A24

Jacob and Monica still hold a day job at a hatchery doing chicken sexing, separating the male chicks from the female, but Jacob sees no future in the routine work. The farm is his dream. In the sexing process, the male chicks are discarded, for they don’t taste as good and can’t lay eggs. A ready object lesson for him to teach his young son: be useful. And when he digs a well, he dismisses the dowsing method offered to him. “Koreans use their heads,” he tells David.

Monica, however, sees a very different picture. The dream home in the country for Jacob is for her, realistically, a trailer on wheels held up by cinder blocks. Water is from a well which later is drained dry to the crops. There’s no community nearby. Her main concern is living far from a hospital as David has a life-threatening heart murmur. “Don’t forget to keep praying,” she tells David. The couple’s opposing views lead to frequent conflicts in front of the children.

The tipping point comes when Monica’s mother is recruited to help with the kids. Arriving from Korea, Grandma Soonja (Youn Yuh-jung) brings with her Korean spices and rarity not found in America, as well as Korean songs, memory of courtship that has long been buried by her daughter and son-in-law.

For David, Grandma is far from what he has expected. She is a raucous card player, swears, doesn’t cook or bake, uses half his room and, aggravating his annoyance, snores. The interplay between grandma and grandson make up some light-hearted scenes which elicit from Kim performance in his natural poise alongside the veteran, seasoned Youn. The key element in their eventual bonding is love. Kudos to Chung for his screenplay and directing.

MINARI_02405_R Alan S. Kim Director Lee Isaac Chung Credit: Josh Ethan Johnson

Another supporting role that has added spice to the film is Paul (Will Patton), a practical farm help to Jacob. A devout Pentecostal, Paul’s eccentricity is a laughing stock even with church kids. Jacob does not subscribe to his beliefs. Admirably, the two can still work in harmony.

Premiered at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival and winning both its Audience Award and the Grand Jury Prize, Minari has come a long way this past year garnering accolades. The film is now an Oscar nominee in six categories including Best Picture, Best Director and Original Screenplay for Chung. Yeun becomes the first actor of Asian descent to be nominated for Best Actor. Youn gets a nod for Best Supporting Actress and composer Emile Mosseri for Best Original Score.

Compared to his acclaimed debut feature Munyurangabo (2007), an arthouse, experimental film about two youths in post-genocide Rwanda, Minari is a conventional take on a personal, family story. The storytelling is linear and captured in realism, as we follow the Yi family’s first arrival to rural Arkansas and the daily struggles as an immigrant, farm family. The film’s subject matter and Chung’s handling is deceivingly simple.

Thanks to the eponymous vegetable, the minari, Lee transfers the specific to a wider scope in different layers. Minari is a Korean watercress that grows hardily in wet soil. Grandma has brought some minari seeds with her from Korea and sows them beside the creek near their home. As days go by, the plants thrive on their own, an apt metaphor for the resilience and adaptability of immigrants taking roots in a new soil. 

In contrast to a grim lesson of discarding the male chicks at the hatchery David learns from his father, the minari along the creek is a visual reminder of being alive and useful. Grandma sings its praises, for the versatile vegetable can be put in kimchi, stew, and soup, and used as medicine when sick. “Minari, Wonderful.” Grandma and David burst out in an impromptu song. A delightful scene is captured by the camera. As the wind blows, the plants bow as if acknowledging their praises. A moment of magical realism.

As time goes by, the minari plants thrive, and David’s heart condition has improved on its own such that surgery is no longer needed. In the climactic scene and its fallout, a contrast is particularly notable. Jacob sweats and labors on his crops which can be gone in an instant, but the minari grows naturally in the wild and David’s illness healed, pointing to a harvest of transcending grace that is beyond human efforts. The denouement is a gratifying close to a chapter of childhood memory.

~ ~ ~ 1/2 Ripples

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I thank Asian American Press for allowing me to post my review here in full.