The Ethics of Filming Poverty: Who Has a Right to Tell ‘Nomadland’ (2020)?

“I think that what the nomads are doing is not that different than what the pioneers did. I think Fern’s part of an American tradition.” – Dolly (Melissa Smith), Nomadland

Few films this year have found the critical success of Nomadland. From winning the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival to being nominated for six Oscars, Zhao’s achievements as an Asian American are remarkable; for there is no denying that Nomadland is a captivating character exploration of grief. However, the way Fern (Frances McDormand) goes about her life inherently romanticizes the idea of poverty. Zhao’s intentions are notable, reaching out to non-professional actors akin to the neorealist movement in Italy after World War II, but are far overshadowed by its misguided attempts to idealize the world around it. It is phenomenal that these stories are being told. However, what does it mean if they only tell a partial story, with little condemnation of the system that maintains it? 

Perhaps the best place to start is within the Amazon warehouse, one of the most central components to the critics of the film. Its beautiful, dynamic shot design has a certain visual mystique. While the workers are clearly diminished under the massive equipment in more wide shots, the film never seems to dwell on the alienation of the modern worker with more than a glance. Fern and her friend Linda May (who plays herself) are the sole subjects, their stories implicitly being representative of all of Amazon’s workers. Indeed, they possess the most American of traits – it is presupposed that their fortitude and timeliness allow them to have little to complain about. The only remark they state about the warehouse is about how the wage is “very good.” While realism certainly has a plurality of perspectives, the documentary-style makes it seem as most hardworking people would come to similar conclusions. By focusing on these two characters in particular, however, individualism overstates the experience of Amazon conditions.

In the recent months, Amazon workers have consistently persisted in union efforts in order to address their continued mistreatment by the corporation. A simple Google search can lead one to instances of high worker suicide rates, workers urinating in bottles to avoid punishment for using the restroom on the clock, and its automatic tracking for its workers in order to ensure they meet lofty quotas. Even Linda May, who was documented in the source material, Nomadland: Surviving America in the 21st Century, sustained a lifelong injury from working in the Amazon warehouse and has chronic pain running through her entire arm. These conditions are all but erased in its film adaptation. 

It is unlikely, if not impossible, that these conditions are not known to Zhao, who indeed opens the film with the damning story of the Recession forcing an entire town out of existence. It might be the case that, to film inside the warehouse, she had to ensure that these work conditions were not documented. However, the romanticization of poverty is heavily prevalent throughout the film – enough to make it overshadow the remarkable character work she has created within her screenplay. 

At the core, the film is a microscopic look into the life of Fern, who is unable to move past the grief of losing her husband and the town in which she resided with him. She is nuanced, able to show instances of vulnerability behind her more private exterior. Little of the film is wasted with needless material. Instead, the audience seems to escape the pain with her – one job at a time. However, if the film simultaneously aims to show the loss of her long-time partner and the town of Empire, Nebraska, the confounding factors are largely glossed over in favor of character. Instead of addressing the larger issues at hand, they are only briefly alluded to in tiny shots before cutting to a more dynamic, compelling number. It is a film that wants you to only leave the bubble when you are directed to. 

One brief moment in the film, part of a montage showcasing Fern’s job at a sugar beet processing plant, we watch one of the unnamed actors in the film pull up his sleeve to show Fern his Confederate flag tattoo. Somehow, this blink-and-you-missed-it shot has implications far larger than its more languid takes, as it indicates a gloss over a critical component of the film – the overwhelming whiteness of it. You cannot help but to wonder why it is rural white America that gains the privileges of having their stories on film. Racism is all but forgotten in favor of documenting the “other guy.” A Confederate flag has a longer take than the face of a person of color in a film about the pitfalls of this current economic system. It is as strange as the film is damning, placing a rose-tinted gaze on the gig economy being built up after the Great Recession. 

To expand, the adapted material expresses an understanding of this economy largely taking advantage of aging workers in need of additional income, which states that: “How does a hardworking sixty-four-year-old-woman end up without a house or a permanent place to stay, relying on unpredictable low-wage work to survive? Living in a mile-high alpine wilderness, with intermittent snow and maybe mountain lions in a tiny trailer, scrubbing toilets at the mercy of employers who, on a whim, could cut her hours or even fire her? What does the future look like for someone like that?” The future remains bleak for all that live in this lifestyle – a slave to a machine in which they work for in their old age. It is not admirable for these workers to maintain their lifestyle, it is understood to be a debasing way of survival. 

Fern, however, is not understood to be this way. Instead, she seems willing to adopt this lifestyle regardless of the opportunities of places to stay from those around her – whether it be with her sister and her family, or Dave (David Strathairn) and his. While the benefit of the doubt can be given for unintentionality, it still reiterates a rhetoric that is far too prevalent in the media. There is a certain nobility to maintain work beyond the hardships of unemployment in order to continue life. It is only by giving intensive labors to companies that she is able to afford living, albeit far below the poverty line. Her act is a deliberate choice of individualism rather than a symptom of the system at large. 

Nomadland does not intend to explore the larger impact of the Great Recession. Its character study of grief is poignant, captivating viewers with the depression of the aging working class, with little substance beyond it. Poverty is only the landscape, not the pervasive ill that infects nearly every character in the narrative. Indeed, worldbuilding without accountability is irresponsibility. Documentary-style filmmaking must have a keen sense of direction, as many people will subconsciously take its style as more objective than the normal lens. In its beautiful, sunlight drenched lighting, poverty is glossed over as a noble attribute chosen over the elusive power of money and happiness. 

To conclude, reference to the opening quote once again. Its sweeping gestures represent the film’s complications greatly. When describing the nomadic experience, the romanticized ideal of the American pioneer is invoked – overshadowing the displacement of Native Americans and the enclosure movement that came with it. They represent the American ideal of Manifest Destiny, of moving Westward and upward. For even in its best moments, there is an uneasiness of the film’s implications about the systematic issue of poverty within the United States. By the time the credits roll, one is left wondering if Fern, a sixty-year-old woman who lives in a van and working menial jobs in order to survive, is representative of a pioneer. How bastardized has our vision of exploitation become to romanticize it into common myth?