Breaking Free from the Cage of Modern Society

Film Review by Dr Franco Ferrarini, Gastroenterologist and Film Reviewer

“Nomadland” (Chloé Zhao, USA, 2020) winner of the Oscar for best film, best director (Chloé Zhao) and best actress in a leading role (Frances McDormand) in 2021.

At the beginning of ‘Nomadland’ we meet Fern (Frances McDormand), a middle-aged, middle-class woman, in what is probably the most difficult time of her life: her husband recently died, she has no children and the mining company where she worked in Empire, Nevada, has shut down turning her village into a ghost-town. But Fern is a resilient woman, she takes up a short-term job at Amazon to save money to help her travel across the western USA, sleeping in a truck which becomes her new dwelling. Paradoxically, by travelling as a nomad, Fern takes control of her life; she affirms that by saying “No, I’m not homeless, I’m just houseless”. During her wandering Fern meets several characters who share her new way of life, all driven by an emotional trauma or because they could no longer live with the sole purpose of avidly making money to then compulsively buy unnecessary goods. Some of Fern’s wandering comrades, like her, had been disenfranchised because they had become useless to the marketplace, the God of our times. When these nomads need money, they find a short-term job with a minimum wage to enable them to survive. Bob Wells (as himself), a guru of the nomads, explains his fellowmen stance and their decision to get it over with “the yoke of the tyranny of the dollar” by building their own community with the key purpose of living connected to nature and helping each other without a hidden agenda.

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This film can be analyzed from both a sociological and a psychological viewpoint.

As regards the former, the radical difference between Society and Community was well known since the end of the 19th century, thanks to the seminal work of Ferdinand Tönnies,[1] founder of the German school of Sociology. In his view Society (Gesellschaft) is driven by the laws of utilitarianism: a component must be put aside and forgotten if she/he is no more useful to Society’s ends. In contrast a Community (Gemeinschaft) is a place where its components are connected to each other not by their productive capacity but by common feelings, habits, and traditions. Tönnies defined these connections as the ‘warm laws’ of the heart bringing a Community together in contradistinction to the cold laws governing Society. The ‘Community vs Society’ model explains the motivations that led the modern-day nomads portrayed in the film, disgusted by the lack of a meaningful connection with others and with Nature, to abandon the inhuman rules of occidental societal life and to form a community.

The psychological viewpoint of the film’s argument can be seen in Fern and Bryce (as himself), a veteran of the Vietnam war who suffers from PTSD. Both endured severe psychological stressors, forcing them initially to abandon traditional social interactions. Their withdrawal from society can be understood by reflecting on Hans Selye’s classical theory of the “fight-or-flight” response to stress.[2] Later on, however, Fern and Bryce adopt a different response to stress, willingly joining the community of the nomads. This behavioural change, which consists of a heightened altruism and prosocial behaviour, aptly named “tend-and-befriend” response,[3] is often observed as a response to stress and trauma.[4],[5] It is difficult to predict who will adopt this “tend-and-befriend” response and why; it is hypothesized that pre-existing social behaviour and connections may play a significant role in shaping the relationship between genetic, educational, and social factors, all of which dictate human behaviour.[5]

“Nomadland” is a film well worth watching and reflecting upon; it sensitively shows the world of these ostracized individuals thanks to McDormands’ outstanding performance and to the use of true nomads acting in the film as themselves. The beautiful scenes of the film’s landscape are not nice, meaningless “postcards”, they are powerful reminders of what Nature can offer if we try to listen and see with receptive hearts and minds. The film is an exhortation to break free from the bars of the “polished and decorated cage in which modern society keeps man imprisoned” eloquently described by the mystic Hindu Swami Nirmalananda.

 

References

[1] Tönnies F. Gemeinschaft und Gesellschaft (1887), Kessinger Publ 2010.

[2] Selye H. The General Adaptation Syndrome and the disease of adaptation. J Clin Endocrinol Metabolism 1946; 6: 117-230.

[3] Von Dawans B, Fischbacher U, Kirschbaum C, Fehr E, Heinrichs M. The social dimension of stress reactivity: acute stress increases prosocial behavior in humans. Psychol Sci 2012; 23: 651-60.

[4] Staub E & Vollhardt J. Altruism born of suffering: the roots of caring and helping after victimization and other trauma. Am J Orthopsychiat 2008; 78: 267-80.

[5] Sandi C & Haller J. Stress and the social brain: behavioural effects and neurobiological mechanisms. Nat Rev Neurosci 2015; 16: 290-304.

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