The real nomads of Nomadland: It seemed odd that my life would be on screen

Frances DcDormand
Frances DcDormand
15:00pm, Mon 19 Apr 2021
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After a woman in her 60s loses everything in the recession, she embarks on a journey across the American West, living in her van. She finds temporary and seasonal work, including at an Amazon warehouse, and discovers a community of other people living off the grid and on the road, from whom she learns basic survival and self-sufficiency skills, as well as a new appreciation for living.

This is the story of Nomadland the Oscar frontrunner and recent toast of the Baftas, where it was named best film and director Chloe Zhao became the second woman in history to win the directing prize. Starring Frances McDormand as Fern, it was adapted from Jessica Bruder’s bestselling nonfiction book Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century, about the rootless community in the US.

Many of the nomads who appear in the book also feature in the film as different versions of themselves. Among them is 65-year-old Bob Wells, who after enduring divorce and the death of his son, found solace in a life on the road and has been a longtime proponent of transient living. “They captured it perfectly, perfectly,” he says earnestly as he chats over Zoom. “And so I’m watching my life on the screen. And it just seemed so odd that my life would be on the screen, although it’s Frances as Fern living it.

“But my first reaction was ‘Wow, they caught this. That’s the way we live.’ There are a few principles that nomads live by. First, things are a burden. If we all started to think things were a burden, our lives will be far better, our world would be far better. If we all started to think about generosity first, that I need other people and they need me…

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“We lived nomadically for millions of years and these were the principles. ‘I need you tomorrow to help me with the hunt, so I have to take care of you today.’ If we just adopted some of these… travel is good, seeing the world, making bigger thoughts other than my own little tiny circle. If we would just adopt those simple ideas, everyone’s life would be better, the world would be better.”

While Wells was excited to be in a film with a double Oscar winner (McDormand won for both Fargo and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri), another of the real-life nomads featured in the film, Charlene Swankie, had no idea who the star even was. Swankie, 78, who is an experienced kayaker and has been living on the road for more than a decade, was more concerned about getting an operation on her shoulder than about starring in a film.

“I’d never seen any of Frances’s movies and her name meant nothing to me,” she says frankly as she chats from inside her van. “When Chloe told me who they were, and what she was doing with the movie, it just went right over my head. I told Chloe, ‘I can’t, I don’t know what you’re talking about, I don’t know who those people are. I have to make my shoulder number one priority. And I don’t have a surgeon, I don’t have a date, I don’t have a place to stay.’

“I said I had to figure all that out and I have to fix this. ‘I don’t know what your schedule is like, or when you’re going to film or anything.’ And she said: ‘We’ll work around it.’ And I went: ‘Whoa, they want me bad enough they’re going to work around my schedule?’ All right, I’ll do it.”

The first time she met McDormand was at a recreation of the Rubber Tramp Rendezvous, the largest gathering of nomads and van dwellers in the US, which was founded by Wells. “I didn’t know her from any of the other nomads there,” Swankie says. “Somebody said, ‘That’s her over there.’ I remember she had these Farmer John bib overalls on and I thought, ‘Well, we’re gonna work together tomorrow, I should go say hi, that’s the polite thing to do.’

“I walked up and I tapped her on the shoulder and I started to say ‘I’m Swankie,’ and she turned around and looked at me and went ‘Swankie!’, she got all excited and she grabbed me and took me away from the crowd so she could talk to me. “It was like I was the movie star, I was the famous person that she was the fan of and it blew my mind, I’m just standing there speechless. I said ‘I’m sorry. I don’t know who you are. I’ve never heard your name before. I’ve never seen any of your movies.’

“And she said it didn’t matter. I think that she likes just fitting in and being one of the everyday normal people, instead of being a star. And she liked that we treated her as an equal. It must be nice for people that famous to have normal time just being one of other all the other people.”

But when she finally saw the film, which is part neo-Western, part lyrical elegy, it was a bizarre experience. “I didn’t get the movie for the longest time,” Swankie says. “Because what’s in there is just my normal life. There’s nothing exceptional about it. Nothing really unusual about it. To me, it just seems perfectly sane and normal. Everybody doesn’t feel that way. I had to watch it a number of times. And it was the second time I saw it on IMAX and I said, ‘I think I got it now. I understand where Chloe was going with this.’

“And it was just kind of amazing. It’s still a little hard to get excited about it, because so much of it is just my normal. And most of the nomads too, I think.”

Wells is hopeful the success of the film might attract new people to the nomadic way of life, or at least to offload some of their mountains of material possessions. “It’s not an all or nothing life,” he says. “It’s not like you have to leave everything and move into a van and just run away. You can stay in your house and there are lot of minivans in Europe and in the UK, just start taking trips and you can have most of the advantages of living the nomadic life, but with hardly any other disadvantages. So wherever people are, they can start right now and their life would be a lot better.”

Nomadland will be released on Star on Disney+ in the UK and Ireland on April 30 and will be in cinemas in the UK and Ireland from May 17.

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