Nomadland is a heartbreaking portrait of the people America put aside

In the first five minutes of Nomadland, Frances McDormand tells an employee at the camp reception that she is “on the Amazon CamperForce list.” The desk clerk, who couldn’t find the reservation before, immediately understands. McDormand is ready to go. She is free to park her truck at camp.

It was a moment that confused and surprised me. Writer and director Chloé Zhao had already established, in brilliantly efficient use of the exhibit, that McDormand’s character Fern had lost his home, moved into his truck, and was working at an Amazon warehouse. But what I didn’t understand, or perhaps what my brain refused to understand, was that a billion dollar corporation not only knew that one of its employees was living in his car, it also had some kind of system to cheer him up. . Surely, that’s not a thing, is it?

In fact, Amazon’s CamperForce is very important. It is a company-run, fast-growing work program that is made up entirely of people who live in RVs and trucks, many of them elderly. Amazon hires these people for the holiday shopping season, gives them a place to park, and provides an electrical connection. Fern seems pretty happy living this life, warming up ramen on a hot plate for dinner and then waking up before the sun to scan barcodes at the Amazon warehouse. We don’t get the details of Fern’s work on the film, but one of her co-workers, Linda May, is a real-life nomad who plays a fictional version of herself. May was described in a 2014 article for Harper’s Magazine, written by Jessica Bruder, whose 2017 book inspired the film, and revealed that she was paid $ 12.25 an hour at CamperForce and worked 10 hours a day on her feet. He was in his 60s, as were many of his co-workers. Some were even older.

May was grateful to get the job. Fern, who is fictional, is also grateful. “I need a job,” he tells a temp at one point. “I like to work.” You find yourself feeling heartbroken and furious for her. Amazon is providing work for these people, yes. But the company is also clearly underpaying and overburdening a desperate and growing population of the American workforce.

Fern’s story is as follows: She and her husband spent their lives in a town called Empire, Nevada, a real place, a former mining town that was decimated by the 2008 economic recession, which led to the closure of a Gypsum mine. Corporation of the United States in 2011. Six months later, Empire’s zip code was discontinued and it became an officially designated ghost town. Fern, now a widow who has been evicted from her home, moves her things to the warehouse, buys a truck and moves into it. This is something by choice. She declines a friend’s charitable offer to stay at his house. With a little encouragement from her friend Linda May, Fern drives to Arizona to attend the “Rubber Tramp Rendezvous,” a gathering of RV residents hosted by Bob Wells, a YouTuber and author who helps people with financial difficulties live the life. #vanlife.

People Fern knows say they love the nomadic lifestyle. But as we learn their backstories, it becomes clear that many didn’t have much of a choice. One is a Vietnam Veteran suffering from PTSD. Another was working for American companies until she saw a friend die of cancer in the human resources call field at a hospice. Not all are of retirement age, but the vast majority are.

NOMADLAND, Frances McDormand, 2020
Photo: © Searchlight Pictures / courtesy Everett Collection

“The workhorse is willing to work to death and then be put to pasture,” says Wells, also playing himself, to the crowd. “That is what happens to many of us. If society was ditching us and sending us, the workhorse, to the pasture, we workhorses have to come together to take care of each other. ”Wells teaches them how to find safe parking, how to avoid interactions with the police, and how dispose of their feces in a bucket.

I am ashamed to admit that I had no idea this subculture existed until I saw Nomadland. As Wells says, these people have been pushed aside and forgotten by society. Now they are trying to survive in a country that has broken all its promises. If you work your entire life and spend your entire life putting money into a 401 (k), you are supposed to be able to retire. This is how everyone said it would be. But as Bruder pointed out in his book, Nomadland: Surviving America in the 21st Century, retirement is no longer an option for a growing portion of Americans, many of whom lost all of their savings in the Great Recession of 2008.

New York Times Writer Kyle Buchanan suggested in Twitter recently that American factory would make a great double feature with Nomadland, and I couldn’t agree more. Both movies filled me with the same kind of righteous and seething anger. American factory, the 2019 Oscar-winning Netflix documentary from directors Julia Reichert and Steven Bognar, offered a real-life look at how global corporations have turned the American dream into the American impossibility. The film follows a former GM plant in Dayton, Ohio, which closed during the recession and reopened in 2016 as a glass factory owned by a Chinese billionaire. Workers lost their stable union jobs and were rehired for much lower wages with far fewer benefits. Like Fern, it seems unlikely that they will have a comfortable retirement in the future.

It’s hard not to feel that these people, people like Fern, Linda May, Bob Wells, and the Dayton, Ohio workers, have been abandoned. The recession may be over, but the repercussions for them are irreversible. As we head into another economic recession, with so many still out of work after unemployment rates broke records last year when the pandemic first struck, it’s hard not to think about how many more stories like Fern’s are beginning. Nomadland it’s more than sad. It’s infuriating.

Clock Nomadland on Hulu


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