Movie discussion resource Nomadland (2020)
Engage with culture without disengaging your faith.
Rating: M (nudity)
Length: 139 minutes
Starring Frances McDormand (and real life nomads in the cast)
Director: Chloé Zhao
Based on Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century by Jessica Bruder.
- This film won the Oscar for best director (first woman of colour, and only second woman director to do so), and best picture in the 2021 Oscars. Frances McDormand, took out the award for best actress in a leading role (for the third time in her career).
Fern (Frances McDormand) has lived in a rural town in Nevada for years with her husband. He has died recently. Fern’s work as a substitute teacher finishes when the gypsum mine is closed, and with it, the whole town. Fern, now in her 60’s, finds herself forced out of her home and faced with an uncertain future. She sells most of her belongings and buys a second hand van (nicknamed ‘Vanguard’). She has kept some sentimental items like the dishes her father purchased at a garage sale. She sets off on the road exploring a life outside of conventional society as a modern-day nomad. She travels from town to town, state to state, searching for work oppportunities: ‘I need work. I like work’. She takes a seasonal job at an Amazon fulfillment centre, and also finds a variety of work including as a camp host at an RV park, and hourly paid work in a restaurant. A friend and co-worker (Linda) invites Fern to visit a desert winter gathering in Arizona which provides a support system and community for fellow nomads in their senior years where Fern learns basic survival and self-sufficiency skills for the road. The film features real nomads Linda May, Swankie and Bob Wells as Fern’s mentors and comrades. This is a remarkable odyssey of a feisty woman who finds community and her true self in her home on the road.
Questions for discussion
The film may be a catalyst for conversation leading into deep sharing and mutual support. Some general questions might provide enough framework for you to discuss the movie, such as:
- What stood out as the main points/highlights in the movie?
- What themes are explored?
- What assumptions were embedded in the story?
- What challenged you? What questions did it raise for you?
- Are there aspects of the story that resonated with your own experience?
- Are there biblical or theological themes or characters that come to mind?
‘You have a go, you get a go’
In 2014, Joe Hockey’s declared ithat Australia was a nation of “lifters and leaners” (those who were dependent on the government, and everyone else who does the work). In 2019, the Australian PM said, “I believe in a fair go for those who have a go. We make a contribution and don’t seek to take one. When all Australians do that, that’s when we get the fair go mentality and culture that has made our country strong today. So under our policies, if you’re having a go you’ll get a go. We will always be backing in those Australians who are looking to make a contribution not take one and, together, that’s how we make our country stronger.”
… and what about those who do everything they can do ‘have a go’ but can’t ‘get a go’?
Writing in The Guardian, Katharine Murphy responds to the idea that some categories of people are inherently more deserving than others; that those who find themselves on the bottom rung of the ladder are apparently lacking individual imagination and work ethic, rather than a set of circumstances that governments might look at correcting for the good of society as a whole. The idea that opportunity is ‘equal for everybody’, and some people just ‘squander opportunity because they are lazy’. lf you accept the rhetoric, it gives a free pass to governments. If being stuck in a poverty trap is the fault of the individual, then governments, fortuitously, are off the hook. There is no need to investigate whether we are making a choice in this country – either consciously or unconsciously – to fail a group of fellow citizens, and in doing that, failing an important ideal of ourselves”
Nickled and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America by Barbara Ehrenreich followed low-income workers in their desperate attempts to make a living wage in 1988. She concluded that even hard workers could not get out of poverty.
Squeezed: Why Our Families Can’t Afford America by Alissa Quart presents a sad picture of financial vulnerability of middle-class families who are strapped for money due to the 2008 financial crash, unemployment, high child care costs, and the lack of paid family leave.
=> Discuss the impact of financial vulnerability in a global economy and the impact on people forced to give up their homes due to financial insecurity. This has also been evident in 2020 with COVID 19 and businesses having to close with subsequent significant job loss.
Dealing with change and crisis
‘The moment you accept the troubles you’ve been given, the door opens’ (Rumi) ‘Not everything that is faced can be changed; but nothing can be changed unless it is faced’ (James Baldwin). Fern tells people she is ‘okay’. She’s a hard worker, resolved, resilient. She’s a survivor, ready to meet the challenges. But not everyone has the self-determination or capacity to manage the unexpected and sometimes dire circumstances in which they find themselves.
=> Discuss examples of your own or people you known. This may include the experience of refugees who flee danger, into an unknown future, who require courage, tenacity, resilience to meet the challenges.
Fern learns about the concept of ‘ripening’ from a fellow nomad. ‘All of life, at any age, is about ripening. Life is about doing every age well, learning what we are meant to learn from it, and giving to it what we are meant to give back to it’ (Joan Chittister)
=> Discuss the idea of ‘ripening’.
Discuss why you think the director included those lingering wideshots of the landscape.
Home Is Where the Heart Is, but Where Is “Home”?
When someone suggests she is now homeless, Fern responds, “I’m not homeless; I’m just houseless. Not the same thing, right?” One fellow worker at an Amazon warehouse explains a tattoo on her arm: “Home is not just a word, but something you carry around within you.” These workers are letting go of old definitions and old ways of trying to control their lives.
People form strong emotional attachments to the places where they live. ‘Home’ is closely tied to our sense of who we are. “Home” is the place where you feel in control and properly oriented in space and time; it is a predictable and secure place. “Home” is the primary connection between you and the rest of the world.
=> When the world is collapsing around you, and memories are all that is left, what happens when home is no longer a place? Where is ‘home’ for you (not necessarily your current address)? How would you manage if you had to sell what you have and ‘hit the road’? How might this resonate with people moving into aged care who must leave behind their home, belongings and sense of place?
There is a deep yearning for human connection and companionship through the human journey amidst challenges such as illness, loss, and fear of death. Fern is good listener to Swankie who is dying of cancer and has considered suicide. Fern’s gift of just being present with her is something Swankie will remember for as much time as she has left.
One person says ‘there’s no final farewell. I’ll see you down the road. And I do. I see them again’. There is community in this group of nomads on the road between ‘here and there’.
=> Discuss the way the film presents both the strong independent individual, as well as deep connections in community. Read Psalm 23, and discuss the way the psalm depicts God journeys with us as companion, guide, provider, etc.
© Rev Sandy Boyce 26th April 2021 Pilgrim Uniting Church, www.pilgrim.org.au
This resource is freely available to download and copy but kindly attribute copyright