HOLLYWOOD (AFP) – Chloe Zhao, the Beijing-born filmmaker whose indie movies chronicle life in the US heartland, on Sunday became only the second woman ever to win best director in the Oscars’ 93-year history.
The diminutive 39-year-old wowed Academy voters with her third film “Nomadland,” a semi-fictional drama about the hidden community of older, van-dwelling Americans who call the open road their home.
Zhao follows in the footsteps of Kathryn Bigelow, who broke the glass ceiling for woman directors in 2010 when she won the prize for “The Hurt Locker.”
“I have always found goodness in the people I met, everywhere I went in the world,” Zhao told the limited audience at the gala in Los Angeles.
“So this is for anyone who has the faith and the courage to hold on to the goodness in themselves, and to hold on to the goodness in each other — no matter how difficult it is to do that.”
Born Zhao Ting to a wealthy Chinese steel company executive, the director left China as a teen to attend a British boarding school before finishing her education in Los Angeles and New York.
But Zhao soon fell in love with her adopted US homeland’s wide and wild rural spaces — “Nomadland” is just her latest love letter to the spectacular landscapes of sparsely populated “fly-over” states like South Dakota and Nebraska.
Zhao stumbled upon images of the Lakota Indian homeland by chance while at film school in New York.
Feeling disconnected overseas in her late 20s, and deciding that she couldn’t make a better film about the Big Apple than “the ones that have already been told,” Zhao decided to “go west.”
Her first film “Songs My Brothers Taught Me,” about a teen dreaming of a life beyond the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, saw her spend months immersed in the remote indigenous Midwestern region.
The film earned festival prizes but Zhao’s breakthrough came two years later with “The Rider,” another quasi-Western filmed in Pine Ridge and the nearby Badlands National Park.