Chloe Zhao Wins Best Director for Nomadland

by Sara Conway on May 6, 2021

Film and Television

Her Journey from China to Pine Ridge to Hollywood

by Grace O’Connor ’22 A&E Staff

Chloe Zhao is an impressive Chinese director, screenwriter, and producer who recently earned the Academy Award for Best Directing for the film Nomadland. After growing up in Beijing, Zhao made her way to the Pine Ridge Indian Reserve in South Dakota. According to Vulture, “Zhao wasn’t the first artist to come from outside an Indigenous community with the intention of telling a story set within it. But she was coming from far outside it, so far that she felt unconstrained by both American colonialist history and the legacy of guilt that comes with it.” 

Written and directed by Chloé Zhao, 'Nomadland' is the Best Picture nominee  that's both timeless and timely - CLTure

With her background and passion for film, Zhao eventually made a name herself. She used locals in her films, giving them fictional parts that closely related to their own experiences. Zhao produced some films before Nomadland including Songs My Brother Taught Me and The Rider. Over the past four years, she has become one of the most pursued directors in Hollywood thanks to a trio of devoutly noncommercial features. By the time she started shooting Nomadland in the fall of 2018, she had attracted the attention of a major star, Frances McDormand, who co-produced the film and plays its heroine. Nomadland was not considered a typical Oscar movie, but with Zhao’s great eye and talent, the film was an inevitable success. Vulture again states that Nomadland “follows a loose collection of nomads for whom “retirement” means traveling the country for seasonal work after losing their savings in the 2008 recession or never having any to begin with. It’s an exploration of tattered safety nets, stubborn individualism, and economic decay in the heartland.” This unorthodox plot brought the story close to home for many individuals.

In the 93 years that the Academy Awards have been around, fewer than two dozen Asain performers have been recognized. Additionally, only 18% of directors working on the top 250 domestic grossing films are women. Zhao is the first woman of color in history to win the Academy Award for Best Director, both an exciting and historic achievement. 

However, not everyone is celebrating Zhao’s well-deserved win. The New York Times cautioned that although “Zhao’s success has been praised as a major step forward in representation behind the camera this awards season, efforts to celebrate these firsts appear to have been dampened in China, where reports of censorship and media silence emerged Monday.” Chinese social media sites began censoring Zhao following a comment she made in a 2013 interview, calling China “a place where there are lies everywhere.” Growing up in China, Zhao felt constrained and unable to tell the truth, which strengthened her desire to move out of the country so that she could speak her mind. These desires made her who she is today: a woman who embodies resilience, intelligence, and talent.