“This is for everyone who had the faith and courage to hold on to the goodness in themselves,” the director, who also won Best Picture as a producer of Nomadland, says from the stage.
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On Sunday night, Chloé Zhao became only the second woman to win an Academy Award for Best Director, more than a decade after Kathryn Bigelow snagged a trophy for The Hurt Locker. For her work in Nomadland, Zhao’s also becomes the first woman of Asian descent to win in the category.
Born in Beijing, China in 1982, Zhao’s father is a steel industry executive and her mother is a hospital worker who was part of the People’s Liberation Army Performance Troupe. She studied in Brighton College when she was 15, and earned a political science degree from Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts. Her formal training in film started at New York University Tisch School of the Arts.
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In terms of Best Director at least—she’s been nominated as producer, writer, and editor this season—Zhao’s Oscar win punctuates a practical sweep, with awards at the Golden Globes, BAFTA, Critics’ Choice Movie Awards, Producers Guild of America, Independent Film Awards, and a slew of others around the world. But what’s more striking than this sweep is the amount of wisdom, kindness, and eloquence in her acceptance speeches and interviews.
Hold on to goodness
Her speech at the Academy Awards tonight is no exception. While this year’s ceremony had an in-person component to it as opposed to the majority of awards in the past year, many traditional elements were done without. This includes a full orchestra, an exclusion that allowed many of the winner’s to fully express their thoughts without fear of being drown out by music.
“I’ve been thinking a lot lately of how I keep going when things get hard. And I think it goes back to something I learned when I was a kid,” Zhao, who was in a muted but elegant Hermès dress, begins in her speech. “When I was growing up in China, my dad and I used to play this game. We would memorize classic Chinese poems and text, and we would recite it together and try to finish each other’s sentences.”
She says she dearly remembers on story in particular called Three Character Classic.
“The first phrase goes rén zhī chū, xìng běn shàn—’people at birth are inherently good.’ And those six letters had such a great impact on me as a kid. And I still truly believe them today,” the 39-year-old shares from the stage. “Even though sometimes it may seem like the opposite is true, but I have always found goodness in the people I’ve met everywhere I went in the world. So this is for everyone who had the faith and 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. And this is for you, who inspire me to keep going.”
Learn from each other
At last month’s Golden Globes, Zhao’s words were similarly powerful. After thanking her partner Joshua James Richards and her family, she shared one lesson from one of the nomads she worked with from her film.
She quotes Bob Wells in her speech: “Compassion is the breakdown of all the barriers between us, a heart-to-heart bonding Your pain is my pain. It is mingled and shared between us.”
This is the reason why Zhao fell in love with making movies and telling stories, she says. “It gives us a chance to laugh together. It gives us a chance to learn from each other, and to have more compassion for each other.”
The director has had a relatively meteoric rise in the last half-decade in the world of film. After her film debut in 2015, Songs My Brother Taught Me, she was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award for Best First Feature. Two years later she released the western Drama, The Rider, about a cowboy’s journey after a near fatal accident. Nomadland is only her third film, which also won as Best Picture giving Zhao another trophy as producer.
Zhao is also set to join the Marvel Cinematic Universe as she was tapped to helm the upcoming $200-million Eternals movie, the launch of which was pushed back because of the global health crisis.