Who Are You to Tell That Story?

Chloé Zhao shows that filmmakers can see and share the truth of communities unlike their own.

By Nadia Gill

On Sunday, Chloé Zhao won an Oscar for best director for her film Nomadland, becoming the first Asian woman to win the award. Zhao’s win is rightfully being celebrated by women and communities of color everywhere.

Zhao, 39, was raised in China and educated in London and New York. Nomadland is her third successive film that focuses on life in the American West. On the surface, Zhao has little in common with her protagonists, who include a pair of Native American siblings struggling with life on a reservation, a rodeo cowboy recovering from a traumatic brain injury, and, most recently in Nomadland, a 50-something teacher who adopts a nomadic lifestyle after losing her job. But this did not stop her from daring to tell their stories. In fact, the very thing that makes Zhao such an interesting filmmaker is the steady hand she brings to films whose protagonists experience a world wholly unlike her own. 

Zhao’s success has come at a time when critics are questioning the legitimacy of filmmakers telling stories as community outsiders. Last year, the filmmaker Lulu Wang publicly criticized Ron Howard’s decision to direct a film about the Chinese pianist Lang Lang. “As a classically-trained pianist born in China, I believe it’s impossible to tell Lang Lang’s story without an intimate understanding of Chinese culture and the impact of the Cultural Revolution on artists and intellectuals and the effects of Western imperialism,” Wang tweeted.  

Wang alludes to a movement that prioritizes stories whose creative leadership is “deeply tied to those communities” they aim to depict. Proponents of this perspective claim that, for too long, stories have been told by outsiders, which harms the communities portrayed. This can be true, and advocates are right to ensure that some films are chronicled by those with lived experience. But if this belief is the new paradigm for who can tell whose stories, will it not also work to prevent Zhao, a Chinese woman, from portraying the lives of those in the American West? Given the praise for Zhao, one is left wondering what actual standards are being applied.

Zhao says that her directing method allows her to more accurately portray lives so different from her own. She blends the real and the fictional by casting nonprofessional actors, incorporating their real-life stories into her scripts, and encouraging on-screen improvisation. “By staying close to real life, I can help myself, an outsider, to make a film from inside,” she says.

In Howard’s case, Lang Lang, whose story is at the center of the film, co-wrote the source material and is helping to produce the project. Even this, however, was not enough to shield the film from Wang’s experience-based criticism. Staying close to the truth, whether scripted or unscripted, does not seem to be a defense to the condemnation of “outsider” storytelling.

Elevating the work of non-white filmmakers is a worthy goal because viewpoint diversity allows great art to flourish. But in the uncritical embrace of Zhao’s filmmaking, those pushing the “lived-experience” norm have created a double standard. If they really mean that white filmmakers should not be allowed to tell the stories of non-whites, they should say so clearly and present a coherent argument for it. Otherwise, the prevailing standard will lead to the exclusion of great works like Zhao’s. 

In fact, Zhao’s meteoric rise shows that it is possible to portray the lives of those with different identities and experiences in a way that honors subjects and enlightens audiences. We should look to her as an example of how to do so effectively. In an interview last year, Zhao explained her philosophy: “I find that sometimes when I go into a community that’s not my own, or a community that has a lot of issues attached to it, I have to resist wanting to say something about how I think they could be better, or how I think the government has wronged them.”  

Though complete objectivity is unattainable, Zhao understands that, in search of truth, a filmmaker must decentralize their own perspective. Zhao’s openness, social and intellectual curiosity, tolerance, and quiet ego help her transcend the distance between her world and the one she is portraying. In the arts, where activism and ideology are becoming all-important, this way of seeing the world is disappearing. 

Zhao and her trio of films about the American West teach us that identity alone cannot predict who is able to see and share the truth. Some abilities are hidden from plain view: They are of the heart and the mind. If we wish to create a rich environment for storytelling that enhances our understanding of communities that are not our own, we would be wise to care more about the filmmaker’s character than their identity.

Nadia Gill is an award-winning producer and co-founder of Encompass Films, a documentary film company specializing in outdoor content. 

See also, by the same author: “Decolonize” the Documentary? We cannot allow identity politics to stifle great filmmaking.