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NEW YORK – What’s it like to be an international film festival sensation without hardly leaving your home? Like most things during the pandemic, it’s surreal.

Except for trips to the editing room, director Chloe Zhao has mostly stayed at the Ojai, California, home she shares with three chickens and two dogs, even as her film, “Nomadland,” has won raves around the globe.

At the Venice Film Festival, it won the top prize, the Golden Lion. At the Toronto International Film Festival, it was hailed by many critics as the best movie of the year and a leading Oscar contender. Next week, it will play the New York Film Festival.

Yet the only in-person feedback Zhao has received was at a drive-in screening in Los Angeles put on by the otherwise canceled Telluride Film Festival. There, beneath ashen skies reddened by nearby forest fires, she took the stage, spaced 6 feet apart from her cast, while people enthusiastically honked their horns and flashed their headlights -- the nearest thing possible this year to a standing ovation.

“You could see the smoke from the fire in the headlights,” Zhao says. “It was like ‘Mad Max’ or something. It was a very fitting experience for the film.”

Fitting because “Nomandland” deals with solitude and community, grief and perseverance. In the film, which Fox Searchlight will release Dec. 4, Frances McDormand stars as Fern, a 60-year-old widow living in her van. She takes to the road after her Nevada town’s very zip code is erased when the gypsum mine that employed most of its inhabitants closed.

Tired of the disappointments of more conventional and materialistic life, Fern meanders the American West while taking odd jobs (including a stint at an Amazon fulfillment center in South Dakota) and meeting fellow wanderers. The film comes from Jessica Bruder’s book “Nomadland: Surviving America in the 21st Century,” and many of the drifters encountered by Fern are the real people from Bruder’s pages or those Zhao met along the way. “Nomadland” is a portrait of modern-day independence on the American frontier.

“America is as diverse as its landscape,” Zhao said in an interview by Zoom. “One thing nice to see is just how much a conversation about how to poop in a bucket can bring together people from all walks of life. If you’re going to have a discussion about how a human being can use a bathroom in a van, none of that stuff matters.”

“There is a way for us to connect,” she continued. “Making the film gave me that hope. I know it’s tough these days, but I have that hope.”

Like Zhao’s previous films, “Nomadland” is naturalistic, rough-hewn and soulful. Her acclaimed 2018 breakout, “The Rider,” about a Lakota cowboy, was made with non-professional actors on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. “Nomadland” is a modest increase in scale for Zhao, introducing Hollywood stars into her Western neo-realism. But a much bigger leap is coming; she’s currently in post-production on “The Eternals,” a $200 million Marvel movie scheduled for release in February. Featuring the franchise’s first LGBTQ character, the cast includes Gemma Chan, Brian Tyree Henry, Kumail Nanjiani and Angelina Jolie.

Zhao, 38, has quickly covered a lot of ground. Born in Beijing, she attended boarding school in England, then college in Massachusetts and film school in New York before moving to Pine Ridge and later to California. The romance of the road in “Nomadland” is something she knows from experience.

“Every year or so I feel the urge to hit the road,” Zhao says. “There is something about taking a shower at 5:30 in the morning at a truck stop. You walk outside and you see the big trucks coming in and you see the sun rising over the mountains. I forget about all the problems. I forget about all the things that I think define who I am, and just feel that transience, people coming in and out and existing.”

During the filming, Zhao and McDormand often lived in their own vans. Zhao named hers Akira. Many of the nomads of “Nomadland” were able to drive to the drive-in premiere. The amount of honking, Zhao chuckles, made her worry for the neighbors around Pasadena’s Rose Bowl.

The response to “Nomadland” is owed in part to the excitement around Zhao as a filmmaker — a rise that could have historic reverberations in an unusual awards season. Just the fifth woman to direct a Golden Lion winner, she could become the first Asian woman nominated for best director at the Academy Awards.

But “Nomadland” has also resonated for how it speaks to the moment. The film, much of it shot at golden hour on high plains, is lyrically tender about mortality and making the most of life when you can. Taking a line spoken in the film by the itinerant evangelist Bob Wells, “Nomadland” is dedicated “to the ones who had to depart.”

To Zhao, that’s a tribute not just to the deceased but to anyone we’re separated from.

“One of the last things we filmed was Bob Wells’ final conversation with Fern. The way he articulated this lifestyle, that there’s no final goodbye, that I’ll see you down the road, that really stuck with me," says Zhao, whose own life as a filmmaker means assembling communities and then moving on. "We all had to walk away and compose ourselves.”

“It's speaking to: We're all connected,” she adds. “We’ll all see each other again someday.”


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Ubers self-driving car unit makes little progress despite price tag

Uber’s efforts to build a self-driving car have cost the company nearly $2.5 billion and still it’s nowhere close to putting a driverless car on the road, according to a new report.

The ride-hail giant’s Advance Technologies Group has been beset by infighting and setbacks, the Information reports, leading to fears that rivals like Alphabet-owned Waymo and Apple’s self-driving tech may soon leave it in the dust.

Despite the team first beginning its research in 2015, Uber’s self-driving car “doesn’t drive well” and “struggles with simple routines and simple maneuvers,” a manager in the unit told CEO Dara Khosrowshahi, the report said.

“The talent is still here to get this job done, but the belief is waning,” he said.

The manager raised the alarm because the arm of the company “has simply failed to evolve and produce meaningful progress in so long that something has to be said before a disaster befalls us,” according to The Information.

Teams within the group have competing philosophies, according to the report, with members who were recruited from aerospace or the government focused on safety above all, while engineers feel that progress is moving too slowly in the wake of a 2018 accident which saw a pedestrian killed by a self-driving Uber in Arizona.

The engineers feel that Uber “overcorrected” following the accident, and “want to go back to the… fatality days,” one member of the team told the Information.

Uber has been adamant about its public commitment to safety with its self-driving cars.

“We aren’t just building software and throwing it on the road and seeing how it works. Everything we make has to have rigor around it in verification [of the software’s safety],” Eric Meyhofer, chief of the self-driving unit, told the Information. “That can cause frustrations, and I see that too.”

Jon Thomason, who last week revealed he was leaving Uber after three years as the head of software engineering for the autonomous team in favor of a CTO position at AI company Brain Corp., said in his farewell letter that the team was increasingly “bogged down in many layers of things that are not real work, and most insidiously, activities that don’t even lead to real work.”

Employees within the unit are reportedly skeptical of the ability of Khosrowshahi — the former CEO of Expedia — to hold the unit accountable.

Former CTO Thuam Pham, who quit in April, told the publication that over the past two years he “periodically raised concerns” about how much progress was being made by the unit.

“I just don’t understand why, from all observable measures, this thing isn’t making progress,” he said. “How come there hasn’t been accountability or transparency.”

Khosrowshahi declined to comment on the report, but Meyhofer defended the executive, calling him “more than proficient” in his understanding of Uber’s self-driving goals, and adding that he “definitely has the chops to evaluate our milestones or our progress toward our milestones or to help in articulating what milestones to think about or how he’d like to see us describe our progress,” he said.

Meyhofer said that the self-driving unit, which last year got a $1 billion investment from a Toyota-led fund, would likely raise funds from outside investors, as profitability is still years away.

“Since we took the first investment money, that began the journey of us being thoughtful about how to go the distance,” he said. “We expect to have more partnerships.”

Shares of Uber were up 3.7 percent Monday morning after a British judge granted it an 18-month taxi license to continue operating in London, one of its biggest markets.

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