Oscar nominee ‘Nomadland’ spotlights van-dwelling lifestyle, jobs

March 16, 2021 - 10:35 AM
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Still from Nomadland. (Nomadland/Facebook)

WASHINGTON, March 15 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) — U.S. film “Nomadland”, which earned six Oscar nominations on Monday, tells the story of a woman who becomes a nomad in the wake of the economic recession – spotlighting a way of life that has seen an explosion of interest in the time of coronavirus.

READ: Key nominations for 2021 Academy Awards

The U.S. recession drama, which follows the story of an itinerant Amazon warehouse worker who lives in her oversize recreational vehicle (RV), received six nods, including best picture and best director for Chinese-born filmmaker Chloe Zhao.

Of the 11.2 million RV owners in the United States, about 1.5% are “full-timers” and more than half of those continue to work and live with their children, according to the RV Industry Association.

“When the pandemic hit, it brought home the fact that we truly don’t have a place to go,” said Rene Agredano, who decided with her husband to start living in a recreational vehicle in 2007, usually moving to a new spot every month.

When lockdown restrictions at the start of the pandemic forced RV parks and campgrounds to shut down, the couple had to move temporarily to a friend’s property.

“It was pretty terrifying to think: we don’t know anyone who wants us,” Agredano, 52, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone from southern California.

But since then, she said, people have started to see the benefits of the low-cost, mobile lifestyle.

“A lot of people were knocked down by the pandemic and have seen the movie and said, ‘Hey, why can’t we do that?'” said Agredano, a writer who also runs a nonprofit.

The RV scene has already changed dramatically since Agredano and her husband hit the road 13 years ago, when it was made up almost exclusively of retirees, she said.

Today, about half of RV owners work remote jobs of some sort, she estimated, while others go from job to job, relying on seasonal gigs or warehouse work.

The lead character in “Nomadland”, played by Frances McDormand, works for Amazon, which since 2008 has run a program called CamperForce, aimed specifically at tapping the nomadic workforce.

Jobs for nomads have now become a category of their own, commonly referred to as work camping or “workamping”.

Initially, the pandemic had a major impact: “help wanted” opportunities for itinerant people dropped by nearly a third in spring 2020, said Jody Anderson Duquette, executive director of Workamper News, a popular website and hub.

Yet such advertising has now rebounded, and the number of ads running today is 35% higher than before the pandemic.

“Many of our members are still considering this lifestyle for their future,” she said.

Only about a tenth of Workamper’s membership reported adopting the lifestyle due to a job loss or other hardship, Anderson noted.

Yet in many places, RVs have become key forms of affordable housing.

Because of the pandemic, “lots of people have lost their houses, and so they move into an RV,” said Lupita Lara, who oversees the RV Safe Parking Program in Palo Alto, California, run by the nonprofit Project WeHope.

“We’re having lots of people call us,” said Lara, adding that she is currently looking for a space for an RV with nine residents.

While “safe parking” programs – which find temporary, secure and free parking for people living in their vehicles – are becoming more popular as cities deal with a growing need for them, the Palo Alto project is one of the few that allow RVs.

Now, many other cities are looking for ways to cater to RVs, too, said Lara, noting interest from nearby urban areas as well as from out of state.

And the project has had some success stories, she noted: “One client from the RV lot was able to save money for an entire year and then bought a three-bedroom house with all of the money she saved.”

The Oscars will be handed out on April 25 in a ceremony that will take place at both the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood, and, for the first time, at Union Station in Downtown Los Angeles. Neither the form of the ceremony nor a host has been announced. —Reporting by Carey L. Biron @clbtea, Editing by Jumana Farouky and Zoe Tabary.