“Cultural appropriation” has become the rallying criticism of progressives offended by artists who reach beyond their own experience to create literature, music, cuisine — even movies — that explore the worlds of others.
It’s a criticism that Chloe Zhao says is complete rubbish, and her latest work turns the idea of cultural appropriation on its head.
The Chinese-American filmmaker wrote and directed “The Rider,” a haunting story of a young cowboy who reassesses his life after a career-ending head injury on the rodeo circuit. It is a fictionalized version of the real-life experience of Brady Jandreau, an American Indian rodeo rider from South Dakota who portrays himself in Ms. Zhao’s film.
“The Rider” won accolades in its debut at the Cannes Film Festival last year and has received rave reviews since its wide release last month, with critics curiously moved by the film’s authenticity, of all things.
“Everybody has the right to go into any community and make films about anyone if you can connect on a human level,” said Ms. Zhao, who was born in Beijing and studied at New York University’s Graduate Film Program. “There’s a need for it now.”
“All these things that make us think we’re this group of people, all that is not nature, it’s nurture. I’m much more interested in the nature part of humanity,” she added in an interview with The Washington Times.
“We have a lot of layers,” the filmmaker said. “We’ve been told who we are, what skin color we have … layers on top of us. Layers can become what the movie is about, or you can start on what’s inside … we’re all pretty much the same.”
The film’s authenticity was cemented by Ms. Zhao’s casting of Mr. Jandreau, who lives on a South Dakota reservation where he trains horses, along with his father and sister. Mr. Jandreau’s friend Lane Scott, a bull rider who was severely injured in an auto accident, also plays himself in the film.
Audiences and critics have said that Ms. Zhao captured the rodeo culture as well as any filmmaker might. “The Rider” currently holds a 97 percent “fresh” rating on at RottenTomatoes.com, a movie review aggregator. The film also earned the Director’s Fortnight Art Cinema Award at Cannes.
It’s rare for any film to showcase a culture so far removed from coastal sensibilities, let alone one doing so with such sophistication and grace. “The Rider” examines why young men risk their lives to compete in rodeo events, showcasing how Mr. Jandreau’s character connects on an elemental level with his horses and his cultural roots.
That’s no accident. Ms. Zhao met Mr. Jandreau while making her feature-film debut, the 2015 drama “Songs My Brothers Taught Me,” which examines the relationship among Lakota Sioux siblings at South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. Rodeo figures prominently in the family’s story.
Ms. Zhao said she was struck by the “conviction” Mr. Jandreau lived by, like how he’d go fishing at midday and return with his lunch on a hook. She also noticed his sensitive spirit and affinity for horses, she adds.
She said she knew immediately that she had found her next movie’s lead, but it took Mr. Jandreau’s 2016 life-threatening head injury to spark the story in question.
Mr. Jandreau was thrown from a horse and trampled by it during a rodeo event at Fargo, North Dakota. The horse stepped on his head, fracturing his skull in three places and requiring him to be placed in a medically induced coma.
His recovery included having a metal plate fastened to his skull and being told another head injury could kill him. Competing in rodeos suddenly was off limits, even though his life revolved around horses and riding.
In “The Rider,” Ms. Zhao presents an intimate portrait of not only Mr. Jandreau’s inner life and the world of rodeo, but also the culture of “flyover country” that nourishes and informs that life.
Mr. Jandreau “represents a lot of people in that part of the country which today is demonized for probably voting for [President] Trump, but they are humans,” Ms. Zhao told Deadline.com. “I find my calling more in telling the story of that part of the world.”
She told The Times that she wishes more storytellers considered that approach.
“Brady didn’t vote for Trump, but South Dakota is a red state … all the people who helped me make the film did vote for Trump,” she said. Then again, she said, political differences didn’t mean as much to “The Rider” set crew as they might in urban areas.
“Being out there, you need each other to survive,” Ms. Zhao said of small-town living. “You may have different political points of view, but you look past that. You don’t have to speak to anybody [in cities] and you’ll be just fine.”
“As storytellers, we should enter from a human perspective, not a political perspective,” she added.
Turning everyday Americans into movie actors sounds like a daunting task, particularly for a director with just one film to her credit. Ms. Zhao didn’t see it that way.
“There was a time when our professional actors were discovered that way, [like] working on a ranch,” she said, adding that it helped that Mr. Jandreau had a bit of showmanship in him courtesy of his days on the rodeo circuit.
Mr. Jandreau aid he wasn’t rattled at the notion of making his big screen debut.
“At a young age, I gave up thinking what people think of me,” said Mr. Jandreau, a citizen of the Lower Brule Sioux Tribe. “I do my own thing.”
He enjoyed the chance to let audiences see a side of American culture rarely depicted on the big screen. Yes, some people still ride horses to work, he noted.
“Everybody thinks it’s not that day and age anymore, but it’s alive and well,” he said.