Frances McDormand in 'Nomadland'. twitter.com/swimsuz

From the moment I booked tickets to see Nomadland on Sunday the 23rd of May at the Cambridge Arts Picturehouse, I began conjuring up the cinema in my mind — this space that I had been denied for over a year of my life. I retraced the tingle of a mouthful of salty popcorn, the numbness of my back after sitting still for two hours, the cube of darkness that envelops you, forcing you to look forward and consume the screen in front of you. I had to remember how to be a spectator among other spectators.

I then proceeded to be twenty minutes late. I had no time to climb back into the skin of a cinemagoer. I was plunged into the room, my senses momentarily triggering a fight or flight response. It was only when I was finally seated, my eyes scanning the many other sets of eyes in front of me, my skin feeling the warmth of a room full of bodies, that I relaxed. The room, together with us, its audience, became one; we gazed ahead together at the tight-knit community of American nomads ahead of us.

“Nomadland’s community is fluid; its characters are held together precisely because the space around them is so endless.”

My collective viewing experience was tied to the confines of a cinema, of four dark walls. But Nomadland’s community is fluid; its characters are held together precisely because the space around them is so endless. The camera glides over each silent landscape stretching ahead, allowing us to take in every leaf, every cactus, every chalky crater. This is the care of a nature documentary, where the land becomes a character itself. Much like Zhao’s film, which seems to meander serenely through time with no concrete beginning and end, so the landscape stretches on forever. There is nothing to hold onto. And Zhao seems to imply that we shouldn’t hold onto a space in our search for a community — whether it is a city, a neighbourhood, or even the walls of a family home.

Frances McDormand in 'Nomadland'. twitter.com/swimsuz

Fern’s nomadic community in the film, led by the beliefs of real-life champion of this anti-capitalist van lifestyle, Bob Wells, has given up the shackles of stability. The only constant space within the film (which only appears twice at that) is the vast white cube of the Amazon warehouse. While Zhao cannot outwardly condemn the corporation that offered her film a platform, it nevertheless becomes the film’s implicit villain. Lit by clinical white overhead lights and haunted by a mountain of yellow boxes, this space captures the protagonist, Fern, and oppresses her when it needs to and then spits her back out onto the tarmac highway when it is done with her.

“From the streets of central Cambridge, I too felt like I was on a road trip to the Grand Canyon.”

It is undeniable that community lies at the centre of Nomadland. The documentary lens takes shape once more in the intimate scenes around the campfire, as the film’s cast of mostly non-professional actors invite us momentarily into their collective rituals: cooking, singing, sharing useful survival skills, gazing out at the vivid constellations in the night sky of the wilderness. As we are beckoned to join them, so is Frances McDormand — for once made a minority by her well-seasoned Hollywood persona.


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Yet the film similarly champions a life of occasional solitude in nature. Fern finds her community at the start of the film, and proceeds to learn how to live in her own company as the film progresses. Holding onto other people seems to be an escape at first, but gradually becomes just as detrimental as holding onto a space. Following her terminal cancer diagnosis, Fern’s friend and fellow nomad, Swankie, swaps the chance of living her last days in a hospital surrounded by a sea of people, be it staff or loved ones, for one final trip. In one of the last shots of the film we see a shaky Whatsapp video of the wall of swallows’ nests that Swankie so fondly describes at the start. Her decision seems so cathartic, so right. Nature envelops her, and there she shall die in its caring arms.

As I left the cinema, its space dissolving behind me, I found myself increasingly less aware of my surroundings, and more aware of myself. My looming essay deadlines, ripples in my personal life, all these problems that had slowly chipped away at my brain were momentarily silenced. From the streets of central Cambridge, I too felt like I was on a road trip to the Grand Canyon. Like Fern, I had been pushed through an introspective experience. I felt refreshed.