This article analyzes the work of Chloé Zhao and its reception in order to explore the role of female auteurs in 21st century world cinema. By comparing Zhao to Kelly Reichardt, another US director acclaimed internationally for distinctive works of US regional realism, the essay argues that US independent women directors critique American cultural hegemony and the global dominance of Hollywood both through the subject matter and formal structures of their films and through their positioning within the discourse of world cinema auteurism. After analyzing the authorial personae of both directors as constructed in their films and press reception, the essay offers close readings of Reichardt’s Certain Women and Zhao’s The Rider, both set in the US West, with specific attention to the perspectives of central Native American characters. The readings demonstrate how the filmmakers use realism to locate a singular, gendered authorial perspective on the world.
As a director whose historic Academy Award wins were scrubbed from state news in China, her country of origin, Chloé Zhao (b. Zhao Ting, 1982) stands at the intersection of multiple discourses of world cinema and value: aesthetic, cultural, political. As one of the first women entrusted with an installment in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, with its near-galactic box office ambitions, she factors into calculations of commercial value as well. Zhao is exceptional to be sure, but her work pushes against exceptionalism in ways that leverage the figure of the world-class woman auteur for feminist politics.
Before Nomadland (2020) won the Oscar for Best Picture, it was awarded the top prize at the Venice Film Festival. The Rider (2018) received an award at Cannes. Zhao’s first three features – modest, neo-realist films about Americans disenfranchised by transnational political and economic inequities – share formal and social concerns with global art cinema, as framed by Karl Schoonover and Rosalind Galt in their influential collection of that title, and circulate as auteur films.1 The auteur remains the currency of world cinema’s contestation of Hollywood, even as the figure serves different cultural purposes in the 21st century than in the post-World War ii period when ‘world cinema’ emerged as a system.2 In the study of women and other underrepresented directors, the concept of authorship can carry a collective charge against the presumption of auteurist singularity, denoting not expressive uniqueness but the situatedness of a director and her labor in a social world. Similarly, in US independent cinema, authorship can be put in tension with the unmarked nationalism of US industrial film production. Zhao’s reception brings all these dimensions into focus.
On her way to winning her Oscars, Zhao was named best director for Nomadland by the New York Film Critics Circle; at the same ceremony, Kelly Reichardt’s First Cow (2019) took home the prize for best film. A comparison between the two auteurs and their distinctive works of US regional realism is instructive. While accounts of US independent cinema often focus on the maverick male director, women figure centrally in the history, institutions, politics, and aesthetics of independent film, from the silent era to the New American Cinema to documentary production. Drawing on my earlier work on women directors, I explore how certain contemporary US women independent directors use the discourse of auteurism to contribute to world cinema as an artistic mode and social practice critical of the nation-state. In this essay, I read the authorial positioning of Reichardt and Zhao, and the formal inscription of a particularized and gendered point of view in their films – Certain Women (2016) and The Rider in particular – as ways of marking the limits of American empire and Hollywood hegemony in global cinematic circuits.
Reichardt (b. 1964) is among the most highly respected US independent directors on the world stage, despite her work’s limited box office or franchise potential. Reichardt’s cinema is obdurately modest in scope and budget. It is also recognizably regional: after making River of Grass (1994) in Florida where she grew up, she has set six feature films to date in the American Northwest, telling quiet and often devastating tales of overlooked inhabitants embedded in striking natural settings. Zhao, whose first feature was made two decades after Reichardt’s debut, is also interested in stories of outsiders in the US West, working with non-professional actors on location and incorporating existing relationships and incidents into her scripts. Across three films, Zhao and her dp and life partner Joshua John Richards have shaped a compelling view of ordinary lives in the Badlands and surrounding territory. Telling stories that localize US national belonging, both filmmakers produce “realist cinema as world cinema,” in Lucia Nagib’s formulation.3
Reichardt and Zhao have been elevated by festivals, awards, press and cinephilic discourse to auteur status, emphasizing the director’s responsibility for a singular vision across a corpus of works. But a focus on female authorship foregrounds the connections among their films. Their commitments to marginal subjects, to film language as an exploration of time and place, and to non-industrial modes of production and circulation identify them with global art cinema’s critical function in the face of Hollywood’s stylistic and global box office dominance.
Millennial Discourse on Women Directors
When I published Women’s Cinema, World Cinema: Projecting Contemporary Feminisms in 2015, I couldn’t project just how central the figure of the female filmmaker would become to transnational cultural politics as the decade closed out. #MeToo leaped to the forefront of public consciousness and feminist politics after revelations of the pervasiveness of sexual assault in the American movie business and beyond. Along with #OscarsSoWhite, the #MeToo hashtag lent urgency to questions of representation, a keyword whose common usage now welded the political sense of ‘standing in for’ social groups and identities to its aesthetic and philosophical meanings. Campaigns for gender equity both in front of and behind the camera garnered wide publicity and gained momentum, beginning to affect decisions in elite international festival programming and in the heart of Hollywood, with an epic push to diversify membership in the American Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science.4
Cultural producers like Ava Duvernay took on ethical celebrity status, and the watchwords of intersectional feminism became a driver for new streaming services vying for audiences. Patty Jenkins directed the wildly successful Wonder Woman (2017) for Warner Bros., a show of indie talent succeeding at the industrial level and of age-spanning female demographic credibility that both Disney and Warners pushed out to a global market, signing Zhao and Cathy Yan, both American indie directors born in China, for Eternals (2021) and Birds of Prey (2020) respectively. Perhaps for the first time, commercial viability anchored popular discourses of film authorship in gender and cultural identity rather than the transcendent auteurist sensibility favored in art cinema circles.
Coming out on the cusp of these industrial landmarks, Women’s Cinema, World Cinema focused on the work of emerging women directors from around the globe who were being interpellated by art cinema circuits into the ‘exceptional’ category of auteur. Since the 1990s, young women filmmakers had made meaningful breakthroughs on the global stages that confer cinema’s cultural value. European agencies like the World Cinema Fund, Hubert Bals, and Fonds Sud supported work by young women filmmakers from the Global South that started winning significant prizes at prestige festivals.5 My book illuminated ways the figure of the female auteur is articulated with discourses including cultural authenticity, sexual liberation, and human rights struggles, a process that both grants filmmakers wider scope and scripts their careers in ways that can constrain their vision. Connecting this emergence to histories of feminist film activism, I was interested in what difference women’s authorship could make in political struggles over the place of cinema in a time of globalized transmedia convergence and accelerated inequality. With the authority accorded the filmmaker’s vision by global art cinema’s privileging of auteurism, women directors were using a range of realist strategies, including location shooting and durational aesthetics, to remap contemporary social relations and possibilities through a gendered and localized perspective.
I intended my book’s subtitle, “Projecting Contemporary Feminisms,” to be understood in spatial and temporal terms, as transnational and virtual, aimed at futurity rather than guided by an explicit political program. To realize cinema’s public mission, I argued, 21st century women’s cinema, including American films, must embrace a global consciousness. While my analysis focused on films and filmmakers from the Global South, where the challenge to Hollywood hegemony and imperial feminism is more-or-less baked in, I emphasized that it is only through the North – through European funding and festival exposure, Oscar-race publicity, and online cinephilic discourse – that these works circulate and accrue prestige globally. Moreover, in the absence of state support, US independent directors depend on foreign sales to finance their films and global festival networks to circulate them. Indeed, films by women working within European art cinema institutions and American independent circles share platforms and strategies and often ‘accents’ with films from the Global South.6 For example, Sundance, founded with a dedication to US indies, now includes World Cinema Dramatic and Documentary competitions.
How have recent gender equity campaigns like 5050x2020 and Time’s Up amplified and affected transnational feminist visions of cinematic and social change?7 What do independent women directors in the US share with women from elsewhere as they intervene in the politics of world cinema? Such questions, which address discursive and market shifts that are still unfolding, are the focus of my current research. Reichardt and Zhao enrich the critical frameworks I’ve outlined, grounding the realist mode of production identified with world cinema in US sites, tropes, and institutions. And their differences – of generation, race and national identity, style, and industry access – inform an emerging picture of independent American women directors’ role in constructing an oppositional feminist cinematic consciousness with global dimensions.
Reichardt’s Singular Vision
The specific authorial personae of Reichardt and Zhao exemplify the tensions between the discourse of exceptionalism that attends auteurism and feminist politics of solidarity. While certain women who have earned the status of ‘world class auteurs,’ like Jane Campion and Andrea Arnold, embrace the latter, others, like Reichardt and Claire Denis, deconstruct the former, regarding the term ‘woman director’ as reductive or redundant. Before turning to how generational and geopolitical shifts position Zhao within these tensions, I want to establish Reichardt’s outsider image and its ethical weight as a precedent. Most of Reichardt’s films – from Old Joy (2006) to Showing Up (in post-production at the time of writing) – are set and shot in Oregon, where Reichardt lives much of the time. Her ongoing collaboration with Portland-based writer Jonathan Raymond sharpens this local perspective.8 While she follows the US indie financial necessity of casting stars, cultivating a close working relationship with Michelle Williams since Wendy and Lucy (2008), her aesthetic is about as far from Hollywood glitz as possible. Reichardt’s characters are ordinary, somewhat beaten down. (Laura Dern’s character hesitates in Certain Women over whether to call a garment taupe or peach, evoking the palette of white mundanity). Reichardt’s patient camera and eye for composition, controlled soundscape, and steady pace – she edits her own films – reveal what her distributor touts as “a talent for depicting the peculiar rhythms of daily living and ability to capture the immense, unsettling quietude of rural America.”9
Rather than celebrating the heroic individual of the Hollywood western, Reichardt explores the affective consequences of disempowerment for isolated individuals: longing, disappointment, apprehension. Tenuous, hopeful connections with other humans, animals and natural surroundings are central to both the plots of her films and the composition of her frames. Reichardt’s historical films First Cow (2019) and Meek’s Cutoff (2010), set in the Oregon Territory of the 1820s and 1840s, inform those set in the present day, including Wendy and Lucy, Night Moves (2013), and Certain Women, registering how American history and the catastrophes of Native American genocide, xenophobia, and environmental destruction have marked the psyche and the land. Reichardt’s haunted spaces bear witness to history’s presence.
Critically acclaimed in both the US and internationally, Reichardt’s work was singled out in a humorous ny Times editorial as “eating your cultural vegetables.”10 This implicit connection between gender – the specter of a mom who wants you to clean your plate – and the rejection of genre and generic pleasure is also a measure of women directors’ exclusion from the US culture industry. Reichardt makes this estrangement palpable in her films. Elena Gorfinkel analyzes Reichardt’s affinity with the global ‘slow cinema’ aesthetic – films that affectively map their characters’ relationship to global capitalism through depictions of weary bodies, working or waiting, in places indexed to the real world by location shooting.11 Slow cinema gives felt force to the materiality that financial and information flows attempt to leave behind and relays this embodied awareness to the spectator.
In “Pink Material: White Womanhood and the Colonial Imaginary of World Cinema Authorship” (2016) I relate such aesthetic choices to auteurist discourse by comparing Meek’s Cutoff with Claire Denis’s White Material (2016), grim pictures of American pioneer and African postcolonial plantation life.12 In both films, the central figures are isolated white female colonists who make ambivalent alliances with men of color. The Native American captive (Rod Rondeaux) in the former, and the wounded African revolutionary (Isaach de Bankolé) in the latter remain inscrutable to the white female protagonists, and any common cause they find is unable to stem the ruinous tide of white male abuse of power. I argue that both filmmakers use these central female figures to mark the limits of their own privileged positionality. Reichardt and Denis critique the national project (in and of their films) while allegorically marking their own ‘civilizing’ role as white women artists through the central performances of the iconic female stars in their films. In White Material, Isabelle Huppert ferociously defends her father-in-law’s coffee plantation, a lost cause in postcolonial Cameroon. In Meek’s Cutoff, Michelle Williams plays a pioneer wife among a lost party of settlers on the Oregon Trail who wrests leadership away from their charismatic guide and then must decide whether to follow the Native American captive’s direction.
Reichardt’s first significant Indian character, the Cree captive played by Rod Rondeaux in Meek’s Cutoff is marked as ‘other’ in an almost symbolic way. His speech is unintelligible to the white characters and left untranslated in the film; indeed, the filmmakers entrusted the actor with coming up with his own lines. The film’s resolution is left open; we don’t know whether the party finds water, or what Emily Tetherow (Williams) decides. Meek’s Cutoff can be seen as a meta text for Reichardt’s oeuvre: how do we know whom to follow? What are the specific insights and the blind spots of this white woman’s vision?13 My reading of the Native female character in Reichardt’s later film Certain Women below takes up these questions.
Zhao’s Western Cinema
As a young woman who started at nyu film school in 2010, Zhao is making her way in a greatly changed landscape for women directors, although the playing field remains far from level. Zhao’s critical and industry successes have put her work and authorial image into global circulation at an unprecedented scale for a woman filmmaker. Zhao is touted in mainstream and progressive news media as the first woman of color to win an Oscar for Best Director. She has the backing of Disney, once excoriated for its cultural imperialism, now more likely to be praised for its corporate Diversity, Equity and Inclusion policies – even as it has its eye trained on the Chinese box office.14 It is premature to assess how reinvigorated discourses of identity politics and the logic of global franchising will shape the career of Zhao and others of her generation, but leveraging her affiliation with the auteurist cinema that travels the global film festival network is a check against industry branding. Stepping into the auteur position entails the articulation of a singular artistic vision across multiple works (and the multiple roles of writer, director, and editor that Zhao takes on). But Zhao, too, carefully marks the place and limits of authorial power in her work. Her collaboration with actors Brady Jandreau, who plays the Native protagonist of The Rider, and Frances McDormand, the white woman rugged individual at the center of Nomadland, as well as her partnership with Richards, embody a neo-realist practice that credits authorial labor alongside the contributions of others.
Chloé Zhao set her first feature, Songs My Brothers Taught Me (2015), among Lakota Sioux youth living on the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota, where she lived on and off for several years. The film tells the story of a young man facing the choice of leaving the reservation or staying to look out for his younger sister. Although the film had support from Zhao’s film school professor Spike Lee, and Forest Whitaker onboard as producer, it was a difficult project to fund and finish, and Zhao scaled back on her ambitions for her follow-up film. With a simple script, minimal characters, and an ultra-low budget, she found full financing through a large Dutch commercial producer and shot The Rider in Pine Ridge with a skeleton crew.
A beautifully acted portrait of a young rodeo cowboy recovering from a career-ending fall, the film is based on the non-professional lead actor Jandreau’s own story and features friends, family members, and locations in a fictionalized version of their lives. The story is so tightly focused that the characters/actors’ Native identities can almost be overlooked, as much by US spectators as those who encounter the film on its world travels. The Native cultural context is entrusted to the neo-realist mode; it is in every frame, shot, and vocal inflection, in the gestures of training and riding horses, rather than in a social services gaze at life on the reservation.
The Rider won the Art Cinema prize at the Cannes Directors Fortnight and attracted wide critical praise and festival exposure, bringing Zhao to the attention of Frances McDormand. The actor had acquired the rights to Nomadland, Jessica Bruder’s 2017 nonfiction book about older Americans, many of them women, living in vans and taking seasonal jobs to make ends meet in an unforgiving economy. Zhao and McDormand’s compelling collaboration hit the festival and awards circuit during the covid 19 pandemic, its story of loss (and its glorious scenery) resonating strongly and winning Zhao her historic Oscars. Released by Disney subsidiaries Fox Searchlight and Hulu, the film benefited indirectly by Zhao’s deal with Marvel (also under the Disney corporate umbrella), but maintained its credibility in independent circuits given its delivery on the promise of her earlier films. Nomadland won three Spirit Awards from Film Independent, the alternative Oscars: for best picture, best director, and Zhao’s editing.
Nomadland was received as the work of an indie auteur. Zhao had been recognized at the 2018 Spirit Awards with its first “Bonnie.”15 At age 35, she was acknowledged as a “mid-career female director with a remarkable body of work,” even though her second feature had yet to be released. The characterization both notes women directors’ generally slower career ramp-up and confers maverick status upon Zhao. American Airlines, which funds the Bonnie, opens a profile of the award’s inaugural winner in its online magazine American Way thus: “Seeking direction after film school, Chloé Zhao followed the advice of American lore: go west.”16 In effect, Zhao had already “gone west”: she was educated abroad and attended Mount Holyoke and nyu film school. The double entendre in “go west,” involving both the frontier myth confronted in her films and the cultural capital conferred by being educated and working in the US, continues to inform Zhao’s career and image.
In her excellent analysis, “Chloé Zhao and the Nomadland Moment” (2021), Gina Marchetti looks beyond Zhao’s all-American locations and subject matter, connecting the Oscar-winning film to globalization on numerous levels.17 Marchetti points out how China’s own western region has long served as a site of imaginative renewal. In interviews, Zhao speaks of how the steppes inspired her as a child. This imaginary is one among several “connections to a China which, visually and physically absent in the film, nevertheless structures its production, distribution, exhibition, and, arguably, much of its international critical acclaim,” according to Marchetti. The Nomadland “moment” can refer not only to the film’s breakthrough for Zhao and for women and Asian American directors more generally, but also to the film’s postproduction and release during a global pandemic exacerbated by the Trump administration’s murderous incompetence and Sinophobia.
As Marchetti notes, Nomadland has drawn criticism from the left for not indicting the neoliberal policies that obliterated a safety net for older Americans like McDormand’s character Fern, displaced from both job and home by a plant closure.18 Some even see the film’s sequence of Fern’s seasonal work at an Amazon plant as shilling for the retail behemoth. In this regard Marchetti points to Nomadland’s affinity with the “lavish cinematography,” rural and minoritarian subjects and indirect approach to social commentary of the Chinese Fifth Generation filmmakers (named for their class at the Beijing Film Academy), who brought China’s cinema to international acclaim in the 1980s and 90s. These filmmakers’ solicitation of a ‘universal’ gaze upon gorgeous landscapes and elemental stories of the powerless allowed them to circumvent government censorship while registering protest against injustice. Zhao’s depiction of the effects of neoliberal policies on regional workers also recalls the “observational aesthetics” of Sixth Generation Chinese auteur Jia Zhangke, Marchetti points out, who renders the human costs of economic liberalization in films like 24 City (2008), also about a plant shutdown.
Rather than making her politics explicit, Zhao follows ‘world class’ women filmmakers of earlier generations by grappling with the ethical question of the auteur’s singularity of vision. But the intersectional and geopolitical perspective Zhao’s persona demands points up the complexity of female authorship. Although Zhao’s success has been celebrated as a breakthrough for women of color, there is a tension in her reception between that designation and questions of national identity. Unlike the diasporan directors mentioned earlier, Zhao has not focused on Chinese or Chinese American issues in her work.19 She maintains a humanist discourse about her perspective and films rather than one specific to her identity or politics, whether Chinese dissident or feminist. To date, most women anointed in the ostensibly unmarked category of ‘world class director’ have been white: for example, while Hong Kong’s Ann Hui On-wah (b. 1947) has a larger oeuvre than the directors I’ve named above, she is not as canonized. Both Zhao’s US residency and the all-American subject matter of her films engage the rhetoric of American individualism. Like Reichardt, Denis, and Kathryn Bigelow, Zhao is portrayed as driven, ‘tough,’ and something of a loner, traits that allow her to navigate political sensitivities around her Chinese ethnicity and political allegiance.20
Reichardt and Zhao do make feminist films. As women directors inhabiting the skin of the western, they consider the place and privilege of whiteness, human relationships with animals and natural locations, and issues of mobility, displacement, and ‘settling’ in their work. They critique American dominance in the world and neoliberal austerity at home, positioning historically marginalized subjects, including Native Americans, at the center of their films.
Early in The Rider, when Brady’s gathered around the campfire with his rodeo brothers, performer Cat Clifford, playing himself, says a prayer for their injured friend Lane. He invokes well wishers to the “North, South, East, and West,” substituting an Indian rodeo circuit geography for a national one. I’m suggesting that the global travels of certain US women’s films enact a similar remapping of US national borders, asking us to parse exactly what we mean by the word ‘western.’
The authorial preoccupations threaded throughout Reichardt’s oeuvre reappear in Certain Women, a suite of three stories that concludes with an understated but crucial delegation of the gaze to a Native female character. The film’s title invokes both the particularity of individual women and their membership in a class. For me this evokes the paradox of female authorship: depoliticizing auteurist discourse within film culture speaks of the sui generis talent of certain women, while feminists use examples of certain directors to make wider claims about female authorship. Each segment of Reichardt’s triptych, which is based on three short stories by Montana-born writer Maile Meloy and scripted by Reichardt, features a woman who is thwarted – not in a dramatic way, but by failures of communication caused by structural aporias.
In the first segment, Laura Dern plays a lawyer in the small town of Livingston, Montana, whose client, a middle-aged white male worker (Jared Harris) fruitlessly pursuing a tort claim after a workman’s comp settlement, takes her hostage in an ill-advised scheme. In the second, Michelle Williams plays a tightly wound wife and mother who negotiates with an elderly local rancher for some sandstone bricks, remnants of a pioneer schoolhouse found on his property, to use to build a house, to settle. The two stories’ shared setting is established by the appearance of the same man in both: the first segment opens on a lunch-hour assignation between Laura Dern’s character and a man who turns out in the next segment to be married to Williams’s character (portrayed by James LeGros, he wears a lumberjack beard that winks back at his near-unrecognizable role as the untrustworthy guide in Meek’s Cutoff). In the third, the itinerant ranch-hand played by Lily Gladstone, a young Montana actor of Blackfeet and Nez Percé ancestry, in her debut role, becomes enamored of Kristen Stewart’s recent law school grad, who travels from Livingston to offer local teachers a class in school law. If the film’s three-part structure is taken as a distribution of Reichardt’s point of view across the protagonists, then concluding with the Rancher displaces the white female gaze.
Race is of subtle significance in the film. The first segment evokes the political context of the rage of white working-class men, and the second draws a parallel between 21st century Montana settlers of the moneyed white liberal class and those of the 19th century, whose building materials are salvaged. Echoing the themes of Meek’s Cutoff, the segment indicts the settler colonial project, but in the absence of Native subjects. Michelle Williams in both films is in part a stand-in for Reichardt, at once a center of identification and a target of critique. The Native character is central to the third segment, a story about a young woman’s struggle to make space for herself and her desire. But away from home, in the absence of community, her identity is only visible by inference.
Both quintessential Reichardt and a departure for the director, the concluding segment offers an aching portrait of lesbian longing; the lovesick Rancher is a male character in Meloy’s short story, “Travis, B”. The Rancher is also the first non-white character in Reichardt’s oeuvre to focalize the narrative, a strong contrast to the Cree captive.21 Although a Native woman is here given voice, as it turns out, she is a woman of few words, and they fail her in key moments. We see her bundled against the Montana cold, going about her chores with a scene-stealing corgi for company. She meets the harassed young teacher upon whom she conceives a crush by following a group of people into a lighted school building at night as she drives around aimlessly. Taking her place at a student desk, she says nothing, but stays after class to admit she isn’t registered for the course. The two go to a late-night diner for a bite to eat, which becomes a weekly routine of enormous importance to the main character. The segment turns on being out-of-place: the lawyer, Beth, committed to teaching this class in school law before graduating, not realizing she’d have to drive four hours each way to do so. The isolated location becomes something of a joke – she’d confused the town name with another, closer to Livingston. It also takes on the potential of a dreamscape. One night the Rancher meets the teacher on horseback; the ride to the diner and back is a beautiful but silent declaration. It goes unrequited, leaving the character bereft.
Race affects the two principal characters’ different relationships to mobility, both physical and economic. A lonely itinerant hand, the Rancher rides a horse and drives a tractor and her pick-up with skill and purpose. But she will soon need to move on, to find seasonal work elsewhere.22 The white woman is a terrible teacher, and she is in a position to give up her absurd commute. Just a few weeks into the course, she gets out of the job, carelessly neglecting to tell her admirer she won’t be showing up again. In a short essay called “Watching Women’s Films,” I evoked Wendy’s knowing, devastated gaze at the end of Wendy and Lucy as an authorial signature.23 Reichardt uses facial close-ups of women looking – assessing injustice, recognizing exclusion, drawing the strength to go on – across her work. Certain Women includes such shots in all three segments, the faces and spaces given texture by Christopher Blauvelt’s 16mm cinematography. The Rancher’s gaze is the most poignant and vulnerable.
Reichardt imbues the character’s perspective with authority without assimilating it to her own. In a striking shot that lifts her gaze from the fiction to its form, the character’s silhouetted figure opens a barn door onto a classic view of the Northwestern United States: snowy peaks against the open skies, corrals and fields between. (Figure 1) The shot opens in darkness and reveals the landscape as the door slides from left to right, coming to rest on an image that fills the screen, cut to the dimensions of the barn door. This barn is a camera obscura, a dark room; the vista is both framed image and unframed ‘real,’ evoking cinema, and the western, seen with fresh, grounded eyes. The sliding barn door mimes a classic Hollywood transition, the wipe, used generously in westerns to traverse territories and spans of time. Anchoring the reference to the optical effect in the weight of wood and metal, this shot emphasizes the place of the Rancher’s look as inextricable from her race, gender, desire, and labor. The realist mode inscribes the possibilities and limitations in the view.
Reichardt is known for the stillness that guides the precise framing and pacing of her films. The shot recalls Ford’s classic The Searchers (1956), which begins in darkness and the gesture of a woman opening the homestead door onto a breathtaking view of Monument Valley, where John Wayne will soon ride into view. Martha’s gesture is loaded with significance in that film, granting an inaugural juxtaposition of the domestic and the wilderness, darkness and light, inside and outside that sets off a symbolic chain of antinomies that Peter Wollen brilliantly traces in his landmark essay, “The Auteur Theory.”24 The woman’s centrality to this symbolic system is confirmed in the ending of Ford’s film, which returns to black as a door shuts on Wayne’s character, holding back at the threshold.25 Reichardt eschews the cause and effect narrative and mythic logic of the genre film in favor of quotidian subject matter. This door opens onto another work day for the character. Rather than the mythic home emblematized by the white woman, the barn is a temporary abode, marking the character’s and her people’s history of displacement. Evoking an in-between domesticity, it values the Rancher’s relationship with the animals, while her employers remain unseen.
The shot signals a new female point of view in cinema, aligned with the filmmaker’s but also localized to the character, a relay set up by the film’s tripartite structure. While the two white protagonists’ lives are intertwined through routine marital infidelity, the Native character is set apart. She is barely acknowledged when she crosses into Livingston, where the three stories intersect. After driving all night to find Beth, she is shrugged off by the object of her desire. Stewart’s character is willing to accept the proffered cup of coffee, however: once again taking without recognition, without repair. The final shot of Certain Women is a long take from the reverse angle of the barn door shot. (Figure 2) Filmed frontally from the threshold, the barn’s interior fills the frame. On the wall opposite, at the vanishing point, is a window with snow-capped mountains barely visible. Doubled by the window, the invisible enclosure of the barn door is as insistent as is the distant horizon. But rather than demonstrating ‘wilderness and civilization’ in balance, this view of the west is located in space (formal and indexical) and anchored in a Native woman’s quotidian perspective. It’s dawn, but the interior of the barn is still dark, the animals stirring with the break of day. The Rancher goes about her chores, and the viewer and the corgi fall right into her rhythms, just as she has inhabited the rhythms of Reichardt’s shots. These images illustrate a cinematic turn from the western as the US American cinematic genre par excellence to a certain filmmaker’s vision of geographical, temporal and cultural specificity, duration, and human labor, love, and loss. Soon, the Rancher will move on, and Reichardt will place her camera elsewhere in the world.
Zhao also inscribes her own patient, empathic, itinerant gaze within her films. Working in a more committedly neo-realist mode than Reichardt, she relies on the look back of her actors to affirm her perspective and its framing. Fern in Nomadland functions as an onscreen surrogate for the writer-director. McDormand’s character all but interviews the real-life nomads, whom she follows and from whom she learns skills and lore. If the actor’s recognizable presence bumps the viewer out of the diegesis at times, the effect only reinforces the film’s ‘documentary’ truth value. Much has been made of the women’s productive partnership on the film, with Zhao attesting to how much she learned from Fran, including about comfortable shoes (hence the director’s Oscar night sneakers – by Hermès). Drawing on the star persona of McDormand, Fern combines the rugged individual with the white woman’s civilizing mission, extending and validating the director’s project, but also displacing Zhao’s perspective as a woman of color and an immigrant. The director’s implied position, to the side of McDormand as it were, puts the film into dialogue with issues of economic dispossession and nomadic migration in China and globally, as Marchetti argues. McDormand and other white female elders in the film position Zhao generationally to approach these issues from a feminist perspective.
Critics have with reason pointed out that the mostly white van culture in Nomadland is romanticized and falsely ‘universalized’ in ways that the plight of Americans of color under racial capitalism is not. Moreover, the poverty of the region’s inhabitants is smoothed over as we focus on the nomads’ quest for a livelihood-cum-lifestyle. But linking the film intertextually to Zhao’s previous work brings out a Native American perspective, visible in the location shooting and signaled by the Native Americans who do appear in the film. Singer Cat Clifford’s cameo can even be taken as an authorial signature of sorts. A musician and rodeo rider from Pine Ridge, Clifford appears in all three of Zhao’s independent films, most notably as Brady’s friend in The Rider. Clifford is literally given the last word in Nomadland, as he sings his original song “Drifting Away I Go” over the credits.
Certainly Zhao as a young immigrant woman of color has a different relation to directorial authority and to American conversations around race than John Ford or Kelly Reichardt. She acknowledges these positionalities in her films about Native characters. She speaks frequently of the affinity she felt with the residents of Pine Ridge and the advantages of her non-American perspective. Yet press reception of The Rider often constructs a parallel ‘othering’ of the film’s unusual western hero and its unusual ‘Eastern’ filmmaker. As John Powers describes the film in Vogue: “It’s also one of those rare movies that boast a compelling story on both sides of the camera. This Western tale of horses and men was made by, of all people, a Chinese woman, educated at a U.K. boarding school.”26 Powers inadvertently condescends to Zhao by making her directing of a western, her directing at all, sound unlikely, preposterous, even as he nods to her cosmopolitanism. A piece in News from Indian Country also calls out Zhao’s exceptionalism: “The director, astonishingly, is a Chinese woman.”27 But the piece goes on to credit her expertise in recognizing his: “Chloé Zhao … first met a teenage Brady Jandreau several years ago and after watching him work with emotional horses figured he could work the emotions of an audience.” As Jandreau points out, he is “a horse trainer and she is an actor trainer.”28
The Rider’s hero’s predicament is that of the young Lower Brule Sioux man who plays him – how to live on with loss, how to conceive of a future without being able to do what he feels destined to do. For the titular character of The Rider cannot, in fact, ride. Much of the film’s gravity is drawn from making a real-life injury and recovery the basis of its story. Zhao had met Jandreau while making her first film and hoped to work with him in a later project. After he was thrown from a bronco who stepped on his skull, Jandreau had time to participate and she had her story, as his healing unfolds in both narrative and existential time. The first scene of the film shows Brady Blackburn taking a knife to his own scalp, popping out staples from actor Brady Jandreau’s head. An image of masculine self-sufficiency – we learn that he’s also prematurely checked himself out of the hospital – it is also an exposed wound. The diegesis is subtly keyed to the growth of Jandreau/Blackburn’s hair. In a remarkable, unplanned sequence illustrative of realist cinema’s openness to contingency, he trains a horse in real time.
Brady’s physical impairment may speak allegorically to his economic disenfranchisement and structural lack of access to the traditional hero’s position. But however symbolic his role, his authenticity is apparent in the textures of everyday life caught by the digital camera. Blackburn shares his home with his flawed but loving father (Tim Jandreau) and autistic younger sister Lilly (Lilly Jandreau), a joyful person whom he treats with great tenderness. He describes his surgery to Lilly but assures her, “I’m not going to die.” “Me neither!” she exclaims, “I’m staying alive!” Brady Blackburn is both vulnerable and defended, open and “stubborn,” a word used several times to describe him. After Brady’s father sells the family horse Gus to repay his debts, the young man is seen in long shot gazing out at the sunset. (Figure 3) The western’s iconography is at its most elemental, but the absence of the horse grounds this cowboy in his place against the horizon.
The narrative is both quietly internal and scripted onto symbolic events like the fate of the wild horse Apollo, whose rehabilitation Brady takes on as a step towards his own. When Apollo injures its leg in barbed wire, Brady recognizes that taking the horse on the long ride to seek veterinary care would be inhumane. When his father shoots Apollo, the sound of the offscreen shot is devastating. When Brady explains to his sister his decision to return to the rodeo, Lilly reminds him of the danger: “Didn’t you say no more ever”? in her pleasing, poignant manner. He responds with an analogy to Apollo: “If something like what happened to me happened to an animal, it would have to be put down.” Throughout the film, Brady’s guardedness is betrayed by such moments of deep connection and intimacy. Intercut with the conversation are shots of Brady readying himself to return to the rodeo ring, highlighting the iconography and mythos of the cowboy – western shirt, belt-buckle, bandana. But it turns out he is simply dressing himself pridefully in his own, well-worn clothes. For in the film’s penultimate scene, rather than getting back on the bronco he’s scheduled to ride in the competition, Brady turns away from the chute towards Lilly and his father. The camera pulls back to take in the community’s enjoyment of the rodeo, tactfully turning away from Brady’s choice to a more documentary perspective.
The film’s final scene is also an affirmation of ‘staying alive.’ After leaving the rodeo, Brady visits his friend in rehab. The character is played by Lane Scott, a promising bull rider and Brady Jandreau’s friend, who sustained severe injuries in a car accident that rendered him unable to walk or speak as he used to. Just as he communicated with Apollo and with Lilly, Brady is attuned to Lane, using sign language and attending carefully to his friend’s modes of expression. In this last scene, Brady acts as director: the two friends clasp hands, pantomiming riding, something neither of them has in his future. As Brady describes what riding again would feel like, the film crosscuts to slow motion shots of Gus’s hooves galloping, and the final shot reveals Brady riding Gus. (Figure 4) This image is gloriously cinematic; horse and rider drawn from the image bank of the western and shot in this film’s vocabulary of irradiating respect. Barely noticeable across three shots, Gus, Lane, and Brady each closes his eyes in turn before the film ends. We can read this not as an actual but a virtual image, a cinematic sign whose time is present/past/and future, whose place is here, there and nowhere. In collaboration with her performers and her audiences, Zhang has used the resources of cinema to resignify a conservative American genre into something that travels beyond borders. In this manner, this quiet film moves through intimate scenes of collaborative, reparative scripting – Brady training horses, communicating across neuro and functional diversity with Lilly and Lane – that I take as textual markers of Zhao’s own approach to authorship. Brady is visiting his rodeo brother in a rehab facility; neither will compete on the circuit again, and there is no denying the material constraints this community faces due to centuries of exploitation and government neglect. Zhao has not glamorized or patronized Brady, she’s handed him the reins.
In my readings of Certain Women and The Rider I have set out to show how Reichardt and Zhao locate their own gazes and relationships with their characters in time, space and reciprocity through formal and intertextual means. A female gaze in these films is not a given. It shows up in a certain regard for bodies, including male and non-human ones; in gestures that de-dramatize genres from which women have been excluded; in onscreen star surrogates, and in a temporal quality of waiting and care that feels germane to watching women’s cinema. The filmmakers engage realist aesthetic strategies and modes of address common to world cinema to shine a light on non-hegemonic dimensions of US regional culture, to ask who belongs, who intrudes, and who is just passing through. Their stories of isolated, observant protagonists register effects of settler colonialism, neoliberalism, and Hollywood formulae without presuming to represent others’ interiority. Working within the confines of auteurism, they engage without being able to set aside the ideology of American individualism. Against the changing horizon of women’s cinema, their work makes a difference in the world.
Karl Schoonover and Rosalind Galt, Global Art Cinema, Oxford University Press, 2010.
See Shekhar Deshpande and Meta Mazaj, World Cinema: a Critical Introduction, London: Routledge, 2018, for a synthesis of the extensive critical literature on the subject, to which this journal makes a key contribution.
Lucia Nagib, Realist Cinema as World Cinema: Non-cinema, Intermedial Passages, Total Cinema. Amsterdam University Press, 2020.
Between 2015 and 2020, the Academy doubled the number of women members, and tripled the number of members from underrepresented groups as well as international membership, and set new diversity and inclusion goals for 2025.
See introduction, Patricia White, Women’s Cinema, World Cinema: Projecting 20th Century Feminisms. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2015.
By ‘accents’ I refer to Hamid Naficy’s important concept of ‘accented cinema,’ work made by diasporan, exilic, or ethnic directors within a host nation, sharing styles and themes and chronotopes. Hamid Naficy, An Accented Cinema: Exilic and Diasporic Cinema. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001.
The 5050x2020 campaign was launched at an event at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival by the Swedish Film Institute, which had made great gains for gender parity under the direction of Anna Serner. A number of national film institutes signed onto the campaign, and the hashtag was also used by advocates within the US entertainment industries. Time’s Up, founded by Hollywood celebrities in 2018, is a nonprofit that raises money to fight sexual harassment.
Indeed the thematic and aesthetic consistency of her oeuvre is due in no small measure to the collaborators (notably male) that help realize her personal vision: Reichardt works regularly with cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt, producers Neil Kopp and Anish Savjani, friends and executive producers Todd Haynes and Larry Fessenden (who has also appeared in her films).
Dan Kios, “Eating Your Cultural Vegetables,” The New York Times, April 29, 2011. https://www.nytimes.com/2011/05/01/magazine/mag-01Riff-t.html.
Elena Gorfinkel, “Exhausted Drift: Austerity, Dispossession and the Politics of Slow in Kelly Reichardt’s Meek’s Cutoff.” In Slow Cinema. Ed. Tiago de Luca and Nuno Barradas Jorge. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2015, 123–136.
Patricia White, “Pink Material: White Womanhood and the Colonial Imaginary of World Cinema Authorship.” In The Routledge Companion to Cinema and Gender. Ed. Kristin Hole, Dijana Jelača, E. Kaplan and Patrice Petro. London and New York: Routledge, 2016, 215–226.
As I will discuss below, Zhao too turns to the connection with a Native American man to pose questions about her own authority. A doubly non-native director, she brings an immigrant’s insight to her work.
Ariel Dorfman and Armand Mattelart, How to Read Donald Duck: Imperial Ideology in the Disney Comic, New York: International General, 1975.
Presented by Film Independent, the Bonnie Award recognizes a talented, mid-career female director with a remarkable body of work that demonstrates innovation, uniqueness of vision and an economy of means. https://sasubmissions.filmindependent.org/forms/bonnie-award. The two subsequent winners were realist auteurs Debra Granik and Kelly Reichardt.
Sandy Cohen, “Director Chloé Zhao Is Pioneering How Life is Portrayed Onscreen,” American Way (March 2018). https://www.americanway.com/articles/chloe-zhao/.
Gina Marchetti, “Chloé Zhao and the Nomadland Moment” Film Quarterly 28 April (2021), https://filmquarterly.org/2021/04/28/chloe-zhao-and-china-the-nomadland-moment/
See, for example, Wilfred Chan, “What Nomadland Gets Wrong About the Gig Economy,” Vulture February 22, 2021. https://www.vulture.com/article/nomadland-amazon-warehouse-chloe-zhao.html
Zhao’s film school short Daughters (2010) is about a rural Chinese girl resisting an arranged marriage. See Gina Marchetti, “Chloe Zhao and the Nomadland Moment,” discussed above, for a perceptive reading of China as an absent presence in the director’s work. English actor of Chinese descent Gemma Chan is featured in Eternals.
While I am suggesting that Reichardt and Zhao use their ethical credibility as women directors to bring questions of American accountability to world cinema discourse, Bigelow forecloses such questions in her war films. See Martha P. Nochimson, “Kathryn Bigelow: Feminist Pioneer or Tough Guy in Drag,” Salon, February 24, 2010. https://www.salon.com/2010/02/24/bigelow_3/.
First Cow features a Chinese primary character in one of two principal roles and returns to the deep currents of male friendship in a reprise of themes in Old Joy, Reichardt’s first film set in Oregon.
The economics of the gig become clear in the course of the mesmerizing film Bitterbrush (2021), an immersive documentary by Emelie Mahdavian that follows two women who freelance rounding up cattle each summer in Montana.
Patricia White, “Watching Women’s Films,” Camera obscura 72 (2009), 152–162.
Peter Wollen, “The Auteur Theory,” Signs and Meaning in the Cinema. Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 1972, 74–115.
The shot is quoted at the end of Zhao’s Nomadland, with Frances McDormand’s character joining John Wayne’s, outside rather than confined to domesticity.
John Powers, “How Chloé Zhao Reinvented the Western,” Vogue, March 22, 2018. https://www.vogue.com/article/chloe-zhao-the-rider-vogue-april-2018.
Sandra Hale Schulman, “The Rider; When the Rodeo’s Over,” News from Indian Country, October 1, 2018: 18.
Quoted in Powers (2018).