Oscars: Chloe Zhao creates history with Oscar win for Best Director

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Chloe Zhao, a Chinese-born filmmaker who told the tale of financially strapped van dwellers in the United States in Nomadland, has made history with Oscar wins for won Best Director at the Academy Awards for the first Asian woman and just the second woman overall.

The 39-year-old also won Best Picture for the film, which stars actress Frances McDormand and a host of real-life nomads who wander the US searching for jobs, at the Academy Awards on Sunday in Los Angeles, California. McDormand earned her third Academy Award for Best Actress for the performance.

Zhao was born in China and remained in Beijing until she was 14 years old when she moved to London to attend boarding school. She then travelled to Los Angeles to complete high school and then to New York to pursue film school.

Despite the initial hype in China over Zhao’s Oscar nomination, a controversy erupted when internet users resurrected old social media messages accusing the filmmaker of betraying her homeland. This year’s ceremony will not be televised in China or Hong Kong. A short documentary about the territory’s protests in 2019 was also nominated for an award.

After a year of simulated ceremonies, this year’s ceremony, held at Los Angeles’ Union Station, marked a return to glamour and in-person festivities – though under coronavirus health laws. For women and persons of colour, the festival was indeed a significant move forward.

“It was definitely one of the most diverse slates of nominees in terms of gender and race,” said a reporter at the venue. “There were nine actors of colour in the acting categories. There were 76 different nominations for 70 women in a variety of categories.”

This year was the first time in the category’s history that two women were nominated at the same time, with Zhao up against Emerald Fennell, the British director of Promising Young Woman. Zhao entered the ceremony as a favourite, having earned awards from the Directors Guild of America, the Golden Globes, BAFTA, and a number of film critics groups.

Fennell won the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay, despite losing out to Zhao in the directing race.

Although there was more diversity in the top award nominations this year, women and people of colour were underrepresented in the behind-the-scenes and professional groups, according to the University of California, Los Angeles, which monitors Oscars diversity.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which helps organize the Oscars, published new inclusion and diversity guidelines in September that actors will have to follow beginning in 2024 in order for their work to be nominated for Best Picture.

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