Chloe Zhao has made history at the 2021 Academy Awards, becoming the first woman of colour to win best director and just the second woman to win the award.

Zhao won the directing Oscar for Nomadland, joining Kathryn Bigelow, who won in 2009 for The Hurt Locker.

“I’m extremely lucky to be able to do what I love for a living,” she said backstage. This win means more people get to live their dreams. I’m extremely grateful.” This was the only year in the 93-year Oscar history with two female nominees: Zhao and Promising Young Woman director Emerald Fennell. Only seven women have ever been nominated.

Zhao’s film starring Frances McDormand tells a story about a woman in her 60s and other transient workers in the American West.

The film won best picture and McDormand took home the award for best actress.

While wearing braids and sporting white tennis shoes, Zhao thanked her entire cast and crew. She called the process of creating the project a once-in-a lifetime journey we’ve all been on together. Zhao paid homage to those who inspired her to keep going.

This is for anyone who has the faith and the courage to hold onto the goodness in themselves and hold onto to the goodness in each other, no matter how difficult it is to do that, she said during her acceptance speech. This is for you. You inspire me to keep going.

The director talked about how a game she used to play with her father challenged her.

Ive been thinking a lot lately of how I keep going when things get hard, she said. I think it goes back to when I was a kid, when I was growing up in China, my dad and I used to play this game. We would memorise Chinese poems and texts. We would recite them together and try to finish each others sentences.

It was the first Oscar for the 39-year-old Zhao, who was born in Beijing and went to college and film school in the United States. Nomadland was her third feature.

Despite Zhao’s history-making night, her success has yet been recognized by her birth country of China. She has been met with muted response, and state media in China had not celebrated her win by late Monday morning, with CCTV and Xinhua, the two main state media not posting her win.

A post announcing Zhao’s directing win by film magazine Watch Movies, which has over 14 million followers on the ubiquitous Weibo microblog, was censored a few hours after it appeared.

During her acceptance speech, Zhao said she was also inspired by phrase that comes from a Chinese text The Three Character Classic, which she said translated to People at birth are inherently good. She said that phrase had a major impact on her as a kid, as she still stands firm on the words.

I still truly believe them today, even though sometimes it may seem like the opposite is true, she said. But I have always found goodness in the people I met, everywhere I went in the world.

The other nominees were Lee Isaac Chung for Minari, Thomas Vinterberg for Another Round, and David Fincher for Mank.

Published in Dawn, April 27th, 2021

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