Chinese film director shatters Oscar barriers

Nomad: Chloe Zhao is the first Asian woman in history to win Best Director. © Getty

Does it always take an outsider to see our inner truth? This morning, Chloé Zhao won best director and her film Nomadland, about America’s van-dwellers, won best film and best actress.

Hollywood has never seen anyone quite like Chloé Zhao.

Today she has made history as the first woman of colour to win best director with her drama about van-dwellers.

Nomadland triumphed with a win for best picture, best actress for the lead Frances McDormand, and a historic victory for Chloé Zhao, becoming the first woman of colour to be named best director and only the second woman ever.

Her story about people living out of vans, adrift in a world falling apart, has caught the zeitgeist of modern America.

In recent years, critics have protested the lack of diversity using the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite.

Last year, when actress Issa Rae announced the Best Director nominees, she added pointedly: “Congratulations to those men.”

But this is not only a victory for greater equality in the film industry. This is the remarkable story of how a kid from Beijing came to Hollywood to reinvent the Western genre and tell powerful home truths about modern life in the United States.

In the tradition of the Western, Zhao is the stranger who rides into town to shake things up.

Zhao says she always dreamed of seeing America. She was a lazy child, raised on Manga comics and Michael Jackson. She longed to head west and reject the “ancient culture” that expected her to be a certain way.

Aged 14, her parents sent her to “one of those Hogwarts boarding schools” in the UK.

In 2000, she moved to Los Angeles where her romantic ideas of life in America met the harsh reality of being an immigrant in the US.

“Well, this is not what I saw in the movies,” she remembers thinking. Abandoning a career in politics, she studied film in New York before leaving the big city for the Badlands of South Dakota.

This dramatic barren landscape of steep canyons and spires of rock is the perfect place to tell great stories. Here, she fell in love with the rolling prairies and the magic hour light of South Dakota’s wide-open skies.

But the state is also home to Pine Ridge, one of the largest Native American reservations and some of the poorest counties in the country.

Her first two low-budget films document life on the reservation. Although scripted and staged, they are based on real lives and Zhao’s 17-month immersion in Lakota culture.

And instead of using professional actors, she hired real people to “play a version of themselves”, blurring the line between fact and fiction.

“She was very in tune”, said one of the cast in her first film, “It was like one of our own.” Mixing this realism with the beauty and grandeur of the landscape, she has made films about poverty, alcoholism, disability and masculinity.

Now, in Nomadland, she follows the lives of people made “houseless” by the Great Recession.

Her old teacher says Chloé Zhao has a “warm heart” and a “cold eye” and that award-winning combination has now made cinema history.

Her next movie will be the latest Marvel film The Eternals, released in November. How will cinema’s rebellious outsider shake up the Marvel Universe? Her lips are sealed, but she says fans can expect some big surprises.

Does it take an outsider to see our inner truth?

On the road again

Some say yes, outsiders can understand us on a deeper level. When someone arrives in a different country, they notice things that the people living there take for granted. They can see the bigger picture and take a more objective view. We often lie to others and ourselves about sensitive topics, but we can open up to strangers without fear of the consequences.

Others say no, outsiders can never fully understand. However much time they spend with us, they can only ever know what we say and do, not how we feel. That is something no one else can understand. What makes Chloé Zhao’s films so powerful is that real people play themselves and this insider experience gives the stories a more authentic sense of truth.

You Decide

  1. What do you think Zhao’s teacher means by a warm heart and a cold eye?
  2. Are the people playing themselves in Zhao’s films really acting?


  1. In pairs, list situations in your life when you have felt like an outsider and describe how it made you feel.
  2. In small groups, write a short scene for a story set in your school. Perform your scene to the rest of the class.

Some People Say...

“A writer is an exile, an outsider, always reporting on things, and it is part of his life to keep on the move. Travel is natural.”

James Salter (1925 – 2015), American novelist

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
It is generally agreed that Chloé Zhao, like the van-dwellers of Nomadland, does not like to be pinned down. “I’ve always been an outsider,” she says. “I’m drawn to outsiders.” So although she was born in China and now lives in Los Angeles, she does not refer to herself as Chinese or American. This rejection of her birthplace has not gone down well in China, where mention of Nomadland has been removed from social media.
What do we not know?
One area of debate is whether Chloé Zhao’s success is a sign that the Academy is responding to criticism. For the first time, two women were nominated for Best Director and 9 out of 20 available nominations went to actors of colour. However, it has been a strange year for the movie business, with Covid-19 shutting cinemas and many major releases being postponed, including Spielberg’s West Side Story. This may have helped smaller films like Nomadland get more attention.

Word Watch

A loanword from German meaning “spirit of the time”. It translates literally as time ghost.
The campaign began in 2015 when all the acting nominations went to White actors.
The most popular genre of the early 20th Century, these films depicted a mythic and romanticised world of cowboys living in the rugged landscape of the western United States , known as “the Old West”.
The 100 square miles of National Park are home to a 1,000-strong herd of bison and the black-footed ferret, one of the most endangered mammals in the world.
Magic hour
In cinematography the last 20 to 30 minutes of daylight is considered one of the best times to film. The soft warm light enhances colours and flatters skin tones.
In the 19th Century, as the United States expanded westward, Native Americans were moved onto these lands. There are 326 reservations in the US, with their own laws and governments.
Native American people of North and South Dakota, the Lakota tribe were traditionally a nomadic horse culture of the Great Plains.
Films that explore social issues and attempt to portray life authentically.
Great Recession
During the economic crisis of 2007-2009, many people lost their jobs, homes and savings. Nomadland follows Americans who now live out of their vehicles and travel looking for temporary work.

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