From Mount Holyoke College to the Oscars: Pioneering director Chloé Zhao first studied film in the Valley

  • Chloé Zhao, who just won Best Director for “Nomadland,” first studied film as a Mount Holyoke College student in the early 2000s. She’s seen here at Sundance in 2018. AP PHOTO

  • Frances McDormand won an Oscar for Best Actress in “Nomandland,” directed and written by Mount Holyoke College graduate Chloé Zhao. AP PHOTO VIA SEARCHLIGHT PICTURES

  • Frances McDormand won for Best Actress in “Nomandland.” AP PHOTO

  • Frances McDormand and David Strathairn in a scene from “Nomadland,” the award-winning film directed and written by Mount Holyoke College graduate Chloé Zhao. AP PHOTO

  • Chloé Zhao majored in politics and minored in film studies while a student at Mount Holyoke College, from which she graduated in 2005. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

  • The acclaimed 2017 book “Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century,” was written by Amherst College graduate Jessica Bruder and formed the basis of Chloé Zhao’s film “Nomadland.”

Staff Writer
Monday, May 10, 2021

Chloé Zhao, the director and screenwriter of “Nomadland,” made history last weekend when she became the first woman of color, and just the second woman ever, to win an Academy Award for Best Director.

“Nomadland” also won an Oscar for Best Picture and Best Actress for Frances McDormand, and those honors came after the film had racked up numerous wins at the Golden Globe Awards, the British Academy Awards and the Independent Spirit Awards.

All the attention has made Zhao, who was born in China and today lives in the United States, the talk of the film world. It’s also cause for pride at Mount Holyoke College, where Zhao, a 2005 graduate of the South Hadley school, majored in politics but had a minor in film studies.

Robin Blaetz, chair of the college’s Department of Film Media Theater, says she’s been tracking Zhao’s work (she’s directed three movies) over the last several years with increasing admiration, both for her storytelling skills and her filmmaker’s eye. Blaetz also sees Zhao as a credit to Mount Holyoke and the school’s ethos of sending confident, socially aware young women out into the world.

“I’m so proud of her,” Blaetz said of Zhao. “She’s made her own opportunities — she set out to make movies in her own style, and she’s done just that.”

“I like to think she’s benefited from her time here,” Blaetz added. “(The college) really teaches students to have a flexible mind, and it shows women how to become leaders, to forge their own paths.”

And Douglas Amy, a professor emeritus of politics who had Zhao as a student and as an advisee, recalls her as “a great student and an intriguing person” who was particularly interested in the plight of poor U.S. communities that lack economic and political power — an interest he sees reflected in her films.

“Chloé has an amazing ability to portray these struggling characters with a lot of complexity and nuance, revealing their basic dignity and humanity,” Amy wrote in an email.

He also remembers her interest in film as a student: She once convinced a Mount Holyoke economics professor to allow her to make a film and turn it in instead of a paper, he says.

Blaetz had Zhao in her introduction to film class in 2002, and though she doesn’t recall personal details about her, she says Zhao clearly absorbed the idea that film is a powerful medium “for addressing the world and effecting change.”

Female directors have made some headway in the last couple of decades in film and television, Blaetz notes. Sofia Coppola was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Director in 2004 for “Lost in Translation,” Kathryn Bigelow won the award — the first female director to do so — in 2010 for “The Hurt Locker,” and Greta Gerwig was nominated in 2018 for “Lady Bird.”

According to the Center for the Study of Women in Television & Film, a nonprofit group in California, women made up 18% of directors working on the top 250 grossing domestic films in the U.S. in 2020, up from 13% in 2019 and 8% in 2018.

With “Nomadland,” Zhao turned a highly acclaimed nonfiction book of the same name by journalist Jessica Bruder — Bruder herself is a 2000 graduate of Amherst College — into a story that blends a few professional actors such as McDormand with the real-life people from Bruder’s book: mostly older Americans who have taken to vans and trailers to live a semi-nomadic existence, notably in the U.S. West, because they can’t afford the mortgage for a house or the rent for an apartment.

Instead, they find a sense of community on the road, in encampments where other van-dwellers gather, whether just to spend time together or in places where they get temporary, seasonal work such as at Amazon warehouses.

“Nomadland” has such a naturalistic feel, says Blaetz, and it’s filmed so beautifully — by Zhao’s longtime partner, Joshua James Richards — that the film becomes something of a character study of the kind of people you rarely see on screen, with a dreamlike quality that mixes lyricism and grit.

“(Zhao) goes out and she really gets to know the people in her films, she spends time with them and she learns their stories,” said Blaetz. “She’s very respectful about that. And she tells those stories without any of the false emotion and manipulation you see in a lot of other films.”

Both Zhao’s first and second films, “Songs My Brothers Taught Me,” from 2015, and “The Rider,” from 2017,” were filmed on and around the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota and featured Lakota Sioux enacting real-life stories. Both films received nominations from the Independent Spirit Awards.

Blaetz said she was especially impressed with “The Rider,” a story about a young Lakota rodeo rider, Brady Jandreau, who struggles with whether to try to continue with his career after suffering a serious injury on the circuit. “It is such a moving, empathetic portrait,” said Blaetz, who now uses the film in some of her classes.

Amy said Zhao’s study of politics at Mount Holyoke may well have influenced her work as a screenwriter and film director. For instance, one course she took with him, “Politics of Poverty,” looked at why many people are poor “not because of some fault of their own, but because they are victims of larger social, political and economic forces over which they have no control,” he said.

For her part, Zhao, who once envisioned a career in law or politics but ended up studying film production at New York University after leaving Mount Holyoke, said going to the Pine Ridge Reservation to make her first film was “life changing,” as she related in an interview with Mount Holyoke’s communications office in 2015.

“I was very attracted to the strength and generosity, the humor and spirituality that the people had — still so alive and vibrant,” said Zhao. “I wanted to tell a story that was a bit different than the one I am used to seeing.”

Braetz hopes Mount Holyoke can lure Zhao back to campus at some point to give some talks about her experience, imagining she can be a big inspiration for students in general and perhaps the college’s growing population of Chinese students in particular (Zhao attended high school in London and Los Angeles in part to improve her English).

“I imagine she’s very busy,” said Braetz, who noted that Zhao has also directed the blockbuster Marvel Cinematic Universe film “Eternals,” due out in November. “But we’d love to have her here.”