The real Nomadland is about gig labour, not van culture

A look behind the margins at America’s itinerant elderly workforce

Spotlight on Amazon warehouse,Credit to Searchlight Pictures

Nomadland has been called a masterful, visually arresting feature that spins poetry out of the everyday life of an average woman. In keeping with Chloe Zhao’s creative vision for her films so far (Songs My Brothers Taught Me,The Rider) viewers are treated to a dreamscape of vast deserts, lush woodlands and breathtaking mountainsides that succeeds as an homage to the open road. The Oscar nomination in the category for ‘Best Cinematography’ is definitely earned.

Credit to Searchlight Pictures

Sadly, the socio-political commentary gets stuck in the tracts.

Nominally an authentic portrayal of Americans living in the gig economy, travelling from place to place while working seasonal jobs in everything from factories and farms to Amazon warehouses, Nomadland is actually an intimate portrait of one woman newly navigating an itinerant lifestyle as a form of escapism from her own grief.

The graceful portrayal of a life outside the dictates of society makes a worthy addition to filmic canon a la Hillbilly Elegy but can’t be considered a hard-hitting investigation of the pitfalls of the American Dream. The controversy over said docu-fiction was probably spearheaded by Wilfred Chan in his piece ‘What Nomadland Gets Wrong about Gig Labour’ in Vulture. Chan as well as other cultural commentators for prominent outlets such as Vanity Fair, The LA Times and The Guardian are united in their criticism over the way the film glosses over the way Amazon treats the so called Nomads.

In contrast, the non-fiction book of the same name that serves as the adaptation’s inspiration is not sparing in its portrayal of the mega-corporation.

Journalist Jessica Bruder provides detailed accounts of former Amazon workers.

There is Chuck Stout, told by a healthcare professional on the spot that he was fit to work after hitting his head on the concrete. Then there is Linda May (core subject of the book and acting as herself in the film) who is found fit to work after a dizzy spell.

The book teems with anecdotes that talk of appalling work conditions-from free dispensers for pain medication available throughout warehouse floors and van dwellers self-medicating after shifts with a cocktail of prescription drugs to weather through the pain to company brochures selectively describing work on offer as a seasonal holiday for retirees, chock full with problematic slogans such as ‘Problems are Treasures’.

For those looking for a quick rehash on the topic, Vice published a detailed expose on working conditions in Amazon.

The article in question talks of the billion dollar retailer spying on employees via cameras installed in vans as well as via monitors attached to warehouse worker’s bodies.

In her book, Bruder also reports talking to that rare specimen-a temp worker who managed to bag a permanent position at Amazon. The man declines to give his identity over fears that the corporation will suss him out. Legitimate concerns, considering that Amazon came under fire for monitoring employees participation in closed Facebook groups to discover whether or not they were unionising or not.

Yet the film only goes so far as showing Fern, the heroine of the story, as working in an Amazon warehouse. She is seen packing boxes with bubble wrap and storing them on production shelves and taking part in a friendly lunch break- a far cry from the tyranny of supervisors Bruder introduces in her own work. Fern’s final verdict when asked about the job? ‘It’s great money’.

Zhao when asked about her portrayal of Amazon declared that she was not interested in politics but in telling a story. Cinematographer Richard makes the filmic stance even clearer:

‘…they [Amazon] know it’s not a film about them. It’s about the people. It’s a weird argument to say that the movie is making a big critical statement. I mean, we simply show Fern working there’

Naturally, the forces arraigned against the down on their luck retirees are far more complex than one employer. The exploding housing market, the fallout from the recession and burgeoning health care costs next to insufficient Social Security payouts all drive the Nomads in question to escape the rigours of a system they come to see as a rigged game. But by merely inserting the corporate logo as well as the warehouses (though decidely impersonal and anti-septic) as a backdrop, the real motivations of those seeking said employment are in danger of falling by the wayside as viewers are tempted to see van-dwelling as just another alternative lifestyle to counter overt consumerism.

One scene in Nomadland that gives credence to this interpretation is the camp fire scene. Moving due to the show and tell nature of it that has the Nomads talk of their reasons for choosing to dwell in vans and RV’s, the stories told don’t reflect the economic difficulties of the people in question. From a former Vietnam War vet battling displacement in conventional society to a woman inspired by a friend who worked himself to death without getting to enjoy his retirement, the circumstances described appear like quests for self-actualisation or unique ways to handle trauma.

Bruder’s interviewees are far more honest, declaring that financial losses and the wish to cut back are their main motivations, with the frugal lifestyle free from material attachments leading to happiness of its own farther along the road.

Consider these statements from permanent travellers asked about future prospects:

‘[…] all I can do is drive over a cliff’

‘Just find me dead in the the desert. Put rocks over me and let me go.’

‘My long-term healthcare plan is bleached bones in the desert.’

Camper Force, a documentary on the self same subject released four years earlier makes for a more literal adaptation of Bruder’s journalism. Hailed as the ‘real Nomadland’, it showcases stories such as the previously mentioned one featuring Chuck Stout, making a case for the way corporate America treats its aging, disposable workforce.

It’s not all hit and miss, however. When it comes to shining a spotlight into the microcosm of lived life as a seasonal worker/van dweller, Nomadland triumphs. Whether it is Frances McDormand’s stellar portrayal of the indignities of roughing it out, from emptying slop pails to fending off questions on whether she is ‘homeless’ (the community prefers the term ‘houseless’!) or shivering under a pile of blankets, the difficulties of an itinerary lifestyle are well caught. The gorgeous cinematography coupled with the moving score captures both the easy going cameraderie of this tight-knit group of survivors as well as the inherent loneliness of living off the grid without any viable security net. The incorporation of real life permanent travellers starring along the actors lends the story some authenticity with regards to the minutiae of the lifestyle described.

For people looking to enjoy the beauty of a big-sky Western with a major case of the feels or simply on the lookout for a Steinbeckian ode to a wandering lifestyle free of sentimentalism, preaching or judgement, Nomadland is a safe bet. Those looking for hard-hitting political commentary are better served with Camper Force as well as Bruder’s own account, though, at the end of the day, both works throw up questions on the same topics, if in variable depth.

They are a testament to what matters most in recent times-the power of resilience and human connection in the face of universal crisis.

Controversy or no controversy over the role of art in addressing real life problems, the potential for Nomadland to spark debate is worthy for any serious contender in the Big Picture category of this year’s Oscars.

Sources

Bruder, J. (2017) Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century. New York: Barnes and Noble.

Crispin, J. (2021) Amazon is a disaster for workers. Nomadland glosses over that. The Guardian.Available from https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2021/mar/23/amazon-nomadland-film-jeff-bezos-disaster-workers [accessed 20 April 2021]

Haas, L. (2021) How Real Is Nomadland?. New Republic. Available from https://newrepublic.com/article/161565/nomadland-real-movie-review [accessed 20 April 2021]

MacGillis, A. (2021) Op-Ed: Does ‘Nomadland’ reveal the reality of working for Amazon?. LA Times. Available from https://www.latimes.com/opinion/story/2021-03-30/nomadland-working-conditions-amazon [accessed 20 April 2021]

McGovern, J. ‘Nomadland’(2021) How Frances McDormand Got Amazon to Agree to Shooting in a Real Warehouse. The Wrap. Available from https://www.thewrap.com/how-nomadland-managed-to-shoot-in-a-real-amazon-warehouse-credit-frances-mcdormand/ [accessed 20 April 2021]

Molloy, T. (2021) The Real Nomadland: Doc Follows Elderly ‘CamperForce’ Living in RVs, Working for Amazon. MovieMaker. Available from https://www.moviemaker.com/the-real-nomadland-doc-follows-elderly-camperforce-living-in-rvs-working-for-amazon/ [accessed 20 April 2021]

Stevens, D. Nomadland. Is a Masterpiece Made by Two Separate Virtuosos. Slate. Available from https://slate.com/culture/2020/12/nomadland-movie-review-frances-mcdormand-chloe-zhao.html [accessed 20 April 2021]

Photojournalist and narrative non-fiction writer

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