April 11, 2021


From Burning Man to Burning Van – Nomadland author Jessica Bruder talks to off-grid.net

It seems amazing to the off-grid and van-dwelling communities that a low-budget docudrama about life on the road could be about to receive a large handful of Oscars at the ceremony later this month.

The movie Nomadland even has a scene about how to go to the toilet when you are living in a van with a kindly, elderly lady demonstrating the size of bucket you need.

The Director, Chloe Zhao is the daughter of a Chinese self-made billionaire, and it’s even more surprising that a woman like her would want to make a movie like this.  Zhao’s previous two films were reinterpretations of the classic Western, and “Chloe had been looking to make a movie about young van dwellers”, said journalist Jessica Bruder, author of the book Nomadland on which the movie is closely based.

Bruder is a burner – a regular visitor to the annual Burning Man festival.  She found the theme for her book in the nearby town of Empire, when the sole employer closed the factory, and the community scattered to the four winds. Even the zip code was cancelled.

Her 2017 book was optioned by a couple of producers close to Frances McDormand (of Three Billboards fame), and when they approached Chloe Zhao, says Bruder, Chloe switched her focus from young van-dwellers to the older generation of vandwellers in the USA – the ones who call themselves Snowbirds – because they flock down south together in the winter months.

The film is about the sense of community, and the loneliness, and the constant search for work which makes them analogous to the cow-pokes of old, who would head where the work was.  But for this generation (at least in the movie), the main employer is Amazon, rather than a cattle farm.  And the seasonal work is mainly in the run-up to Thanksgiving.

These modern cowboys and girls are people of what used to be called retirement age – 60-somethings who through bad luck or bad judgement had ended up outside the safety net of pension and medical care – the film is stuffed with characters played by real people who really live on the road, and their stories are mostly to do with divorces that decimated their savings, or an illness that reduced their ability to earn. At that age, it’s understandable that very few opted for this life out of choice. Most feel it’s something they were forced into.  It’s only the younger age groups where two big things have changed. Firstly, the idea of a job for life and a mortgage for life are just not on the radar for many young people.  And just as important, – the technology has enabled a different mindset, mobile technology means you can be warm and comfortable anywhere you can locate some solar panels and a battery.  And the internet means you can work from anywhere …

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