The ground beneath Chloé Zhao’s feet grows slender wings and takes flight over barren landscapes, forever virginal to the movie audience’s eyes. For in Zhao’s direction and editing, the movement turns lyrical and captures characters moments before they break inertia. In her recent Nomadland, a favourite in this muted awards season, Fern (Frances McDormand) collects the residues of her life to live houseless – she corrects someone in the film when they refer to her as homeless – after a countrywide economic downturn and more specifically, an industrial halt in her small town of Empire, Nevada.
She chooses the vagabond life in a van. In her sophomore feature The Rider (2017), Zhao was in Oglala Lakota Indian reservation, training her eyes on Brady, a rodeo star who suffers a head injury and comes to terms with his uncertain future in the spotlight and the region. But it is for her debut, Songs My Brothers Taught Me (2015) that Zhao first went to South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Reservation, and documented life in the “rez” through John Winters, one of several sons of Carl Winters, a famed rodeo icon, who dies in a house fire. John and his sister Jashaun have come to terms with a life of neglect.
John sells bootlegged alcohol in the reservation to make some money and is looking forward to moving out of the region to Los Angeles with his girlfriend. Jashaun’s future is precarious, and it is through her eyes that we see the Native American life unfold, the issues it lays bare and the struggles lying underneath. Through her first two films, Zhao grew comfortable working with locals and non-actors. John Reddy plays Johnny Winters and Jashaun St John plays Jashaun Winters.
In Songs My Brothers Taught Me – streaming on MUBI – the dramatic arc is drawn out of Johnny’s inner spirit, a part of which wants to leave the reservation forever even if it means leaving Jashaun to fend for herself, an enterprise she’s already becoming comfortable navigating. Zhao captures life in the reservation in atmospheric vignettes and they inform these behavioural aspects of Johnny and Jashaun.
The film begins with these lines about a horse Johnny is riding “If you are gonna keep on running your horse, you gonna break his spirit. You need to leave a little bit of the wild they are born with.” It’s the sentiment Zhao’s debut feature interrogates and using non-actors allows her to focus on her panorama, they bring authenticity to a land that’s already teeming with stories that crop up in the edges of her frames – like a protest calling for alcohol regulation in the community or bootlegging gang wars.
In Johnny’s high school, a teacher asks students what they want to be when they grow up. A lot of answers have to do with the community ranch, riding bulls, rodeo, boxing. Only Johnny’s girlfriend says something off-kilter -- she wants to become a lawyer. Naturally, she’s the one going away and the one Johnny wants to tag along with, no plan in hand.
All of Zhao’s films wrestle with this movement, the definition of home and what it is like to live a life between outdoors and an idea of home or between home and an idea of the wilderness. It’s only natural that she was pulled towards the reservation, the natives who were colonised and trapped in their own homeland. Zhao is an immigrant, moving from China to United Kingdom and later to America, and her films are intensely American, in their disposition and in their politics. And it never feels dissonant, for who could be more capable of capturing that inertia than one who has seen and experienced multiple cultures?