Chinese-born filmmaker Chloe Zhao, who told a story of financially-stretched US van dwellers in Nomadland, has become the first Asian woman and second woman to win best director at the Academy Awards.
It was the first Oscar for Zhao, 39, who featured real-life nomads alongside actress Frances McDormand to show the lives of older Americans who travel from job to job to scrape together a living.
“I have always found goodness in the people I’ve met everywhere I went in the world,” Zhao said.
“This is for anyone who has the faith and the courage to hold on to the goodness in themselves and to hold on the goodness in other no matter how difficult it is to do that.”
Zhao was born in China and lived in Beijing until age 14, when she went to boarding school in London and later finished high school in Los Angeles.
After attending film school in New York, Zhao won acclaim for independent movies Songs My Brothers Taught Me, about the bond between a Native American brother and sister, and The Rider, the story of a young cowboy recovering from a serious head injury.
Just two women have won best director in the 93-year history of the awards. Kathryn Bigelow took the prize in 2010 for war thriller The Hurt Locker.
Zhao competed this year against Promising Young Woman director Emerald Fennell, marking the first time two women were nominated in the category at the same time.
She went into the ceremony as front-runner after picking up trophies from the Directors Guild of America, the Golden Globes, BAFTA, and multiple film critics groups.
Other contenders, in addition to Fennell, were David Fincher for Mank, Lee Isaac Chung for Minari and Thomas Vinterberg for Another Round.
Zhao’s upcoming films include Marvel Studios big-budget action flick Eternals, scheduled for release in November, and a sci-fi Western version of Dracula.
Vinterberg picked up the award for best international film, dedicating it to his 19-year-old daughter, who died in 2019 when a distracted driver struck the car his wife Helene Reingaard Neumann was driving.
“We wanted to make a film that celebrates life and four days into shooting, the impossible happened,” an emotional Vinterberg said from the stage at Union Station in Los Angeles.
“An accident on a highway took my daughter away. Someone looking into a cell phone. And we miss her and I love her.
“And … sorry … ah … two months before we shot this movie and two months before she died she was in Africa.
“She sent me a letter and she had just read the script, and she was glowing with excitement.
“She loved this and she felt seen by this. And she was supposed to be in this.”
Vinterberg said the movie, which was meant to be filmed at Ida’s high school, was a monument to his daughter.
“If anyone dares to believe that she is with us somehow, you will be able to see her clapping and cheering with us,” he said.
“We ended up making this movie for her, as her monument.
“So Ida, this is a miracle that just happened and you’re a part of this miracle. Maybe you’ve been pulling some strings somewhere, I don’t know, but this one is for you.”