The Golden Globes were immersed with unforgettable scenes on Sunday night when a fundamental historical win was announced, becoming a proud victory for women, female directors in film, and the Asian community. The face behind this monumental achievement was film director Chloé Zhao, who was awarded the prize for ‘Best Director in Motion Picture’ for her film Nomadland. To be able to truly celebrate the work of this phenomenal woman we have to take a look back at her story and the extraordinary moments that have led her to become a renowned name in the film industry.
Her father, was a steel-company manager, and her mother, a hospital-worker. Zhao was born and raised in Beijing, 1983. During her school years, she was considered a rebellious teen who lacked motivation for her work and was instead inspired by the creative, drawing manga, writing fan fiction, and going to the movies. One film in particular, Happy Together by director Wong Kar Wai, altered Zhao’s perception of life and attracted her fondly to the freedom of the western culture.
In gratitude to her parents, Zhao was able to live her western dream when she was sent to London to attend a boarding school at the age of fifteen. During this time, she went through a transformative period realising the U.S. was where she desired to be. Once her schooling was complete, she followed her ambition and moved to Massachusetts to study politics at Mount Holyoke College before ending up in New York where she enrolled at NYU’s graduate film school. Her artistic flair for filmmaking and writing was recognised by her professor who described her as a “dark horse”.
In her late twenties, Zhao had an appetite for a fresh start and craved a new environment, worlds away from all she had grown to understand. In a 2018 interview with Vogue, Zhao said: “I wanted to strip away all the identities I’d built up…to go somewhere where nobody knew who I was so I could figure out who I am”, and indeed she did.
To create her first feature film, Songs My Brothers Taught Me, she travelled to South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, a “rugged land of buttes and grassy prairie”, and the location where she would form a deep-rooted connection that would in effect define her creative approach; “using natural environments and non-professional actors to tell stories that reflect real life”.
Zhao spent months at Pine Ridge expanding her knowledge on the area and living “on the reservation, from motels to the basement of a church to teacher housing”. As difficult as that would have been for someone to adjust to the instability, Zhao cherished her experience saying in an interview, “it [Pine Ridges] attracts those who really want to be there and repels those who don’t”. Her determination to learn about the community never wavered and due to that she produced a work of art that exceeds in telling a raw story of a Lakota Sioux brother and his younger sister who have to adjust to a new life after their father’s death. Her distinctive filming, visuals, and storytelling were acknowledged by the Cannes Film Festival as part of the ‘Director’s Fortnight’ selection and nominated for ‘Best First Feature’ at the 31st Independence Spirit Awards.
The grand impact of Pine Ridge prevented Zhao from returning to New York as she found excitement in the unknown. She instead moved to Denver and crossed paths with Brady Jandreau, a “gifted horseman”, who could “transform a wild animal into a docile one after an hour in its presence”. Jandreau went on to star as the protagonist in The Rider, a contemporary western drama based on a young cowboy on a route to discover himself after a near-fatal accident ends his professional riding career. Captured with a parallel essence of her first film, Zhao utilised the real people who were living on the ranch to be part of the film. Not only did that add realism to the film it also appreciated the people who had shared their land with Zhao and her film crew while also cultivating a new form of western.
This was Zhao’s following feature to receive triumph earning her nominations for ‘Best Feature’ and ‘Best Director’ at the 33rd Independent Spirit Awards. At this ceremony, Zhao became the inaugural winner of the ‘Bonnie Award’ (named after Bonnie Tiburzi, an American aviator who became the first female pilot for American Airlines) which recognised mid-career female directors. The Boston Globe reviewed The Rider and wrote: “[The film] achieves what cinema is capable of at its best: It reproduces a world with such acuteness, fidelity, and empathy that it transcends the mundane and touches on the universal”.
Her third and most recent project, Nomadland was shot over four months while “traveling the American West in an RV with real-life nomadic workers”. The film stars award winner extraordinaire Frances McDormand (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri) as Fern, a woman who, after losing her husband and job, is forced to sell her possessions in return for a van to travel the country. The film is built on a fictionalised story by Jessica Bruder (Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century), but contains fragments of actualism when featuring real-life nomads; Linda, Swankie, and Bob Wells as alternative versions of themselves.
The film premiered at the Venice Film Festival and Toronto International Film Festival on 11 September 2020. At both ceremonies, Nomadland received several awards making it the first film to ever win the highest accolade at both Venice and Toronto. Eric Kohn of Indiewire said: “Director Chloé Zhao works magic with McDormand’s face and the real world around it, delivering a profound rumination on the impulse to leave society in the dust”.
To conclude her accomplishments to date, on 28 February 2021 Zhao made history by becoming the first female director of Asian heritage to attain a Golden Globe for ‘Best Director in Motion Picture’ for Nomadland. Not only is this a vast accomplishment towards her career, but it’s an even greater milestone for women all around the world to be able to look at the film industry with admiration and a newfound clarity that they are now finally getting the recognition they deserve.
Chloé Zhao is not just a filmmaker; she is a strong woman who pursued her passion and absorbed herself into the existence of her storytelling to be able to present films that are educational to life outside of our customs and intertwined with a pure meaning of existence and willpower. After her win was announced, Zhao said: “I just love what I do, you know… and if this means more people like me get to live their dream and get to do what I do, I’m happy”.