Nomadland, the Oscar frontrunner directed by Chloé Zhao, has earned wide praise for its inclusion of real life nomads who travel the West in vans and RVs. It has also received criticism from people who wish it was tougher on Amazon, a corporate behemoth that appears prominently early in the film.
The short documentary “CamperForce” shares many of the strengths of Nomadland, without that perceived weakness. It came out in 2017, three years before Zhao’s film, but was based on the same book, Jessica Bruder’s Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century.
Zhao’s film is focused largely on the personal journey of Fern (Frances McDormand), who hits the open road after the death of her husband — and her town’s entire economy. She travels by van from one short-term job to another. One of her first jobs is at an Amazon warehouse.
There are many real-life Ferns, and Nomadland introduces a few of them, enlisting these actual nomads to play characters who are very similar to themselves. They hold their own in scenes with McDormand, an Oscar winner playing a woman on the brink of poverty. Many of them face real-life economic uncertainty as they travel from job to job in vans or RVs.
And here’s where Amazon comes into the story: The $1.7 trillion company, owned by Jeff Bezos, the richest person in the world, offers seasonal employment to such real-life nomads through its CamperForce program, which targets workers who live at least part of the year in mobile homes.
The company’s website advertises opportunities in 24 locations across the nation, as well as benefits like $120 weekly toward campground expenses. It promises that “Medical and prescription coverage available after 90 days,” overtime pay and a 401(k), among other benefits.
An Amazon spokesperson told the Los Angeles Times the program offers “at least $15 per hour, partial campsite accommodations and hook-ups for their vehicles,” adding, “We see many of these employees return and tell us of their positive experience.”
But the documentary “CamperForce,” directed by Brett Story and written by Bruder, adapting her book, shows the very hard work involved, at least as of the time of its release four years ago.
It features an older couple, Barb and Chuck Stout, who explain that they lost their entire retirement savings in the 2008 financial crisis. They say they took to the road in an RV, and eventually found work with Amazon.
Chuck is about 73 at the time of the doc, but gives his age as 71, jokingly explaining that he doesn’t want to be older than that. In the doc, he describes his job as a “picker” at an Amazon warehouse, which requires him to pick up items all over the facility for delivery to Amazon customers.
“The warehouse is two football fields, or three football fields,” he says. “So I would end up on a 10-hour shift walking 15 to 17 miles a day.”
The doc plays what it says are secret recordings from within the warehouse, in which employees are advised that they will be asked to lift up to 25 pounds alone, or 49 pounds with assistance.
Chuck also describes a moment when a box from an assembly line hit him in the head.
“I fell down, hit my head on the cement floor. The gentleman that was taking care of me stood me up and he said, ‘Follow my fingers, follow my finger, you’re doing fine — so you can go back to work.’”
“It was harder than I thought it was gonna be,” says Barb. “I didn’t think I would be in pain. I knew it was gonna be a physical job, but I didn’t know I’d be in pain after I was done with the job.”
She said she used a scanner on the job that caused her particular trouble.
“At night, because of using those scanners, although the third year, I think, they… cut down on the weight of them — at night you’d wake up and you’d have no feeling in your hand whatsoever.”
At one point, they are asked why they think Amazon targets retirement-age workers for CamperForce.
“Because we are good. We’ve already been there, and we’re there to make the money. That’s what we’re there for. We’re not learning anything, we’re not starting a new career. We just need the money. And they can count on us. Because they know we need the money.”
Nomadland doesn’t portray Amazon as a particularly harsh place to work. We just see Fern going about her shift, uncomplainingly, as she does most things.
This has frustrated critics like ProPublica reporter Alec MacGillis, author of the Fulfillment: Winning and Losing in One-Click America, which examines Amazon’s treatment of employees, the way it has changed work, and its impact on the country. He wrote in a recent Los Angeles Times op-ed that Nomadland audiences could “easily come away from the movie having a benign view of the toll Amazon takes on its workers.”
Zhao was asked at a Telluride drive-in screening of Nomadland last year why the film isn’t as tough on Amazon as Bruder’s book. Zhao replied: “I don’t make films about politics. I like to present you the reality of the lives people live, and I like for you to take away your own interpretations.”
Amazon, meanwhile, gave Zhao and the Nomadland crew the freedom to shoot in one of its actual warehouses. How did that happen? McDormand explained succinctly: “We called and asked.”
Bezos, who is stepping down as Amazon’s CEO, said in his final letter to shareholders, released today, that “it’s clear to me that we need a better vision for our employees’ success.”
“We have always wanted to be Earth’s Most Customer-Centric Company. We won’t change that. It’s what got us here. But I am committing us to an addition,” Bezos writes. “We are going to be Earth’s Best Employer and Earth’s Safest Place to Work.”
He also wrote that Amazon employs about 1.3 million people worldwide, and said employees earned $80 billion last year, “plus another $11 billion to include benefits and various payroll taxes, for a total of $91 billion.”
Bezos himself is worth just under $200 billion.
You can watch “CamperForce,” by Jessica Bruder and Brett Story, above.