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Zhao’s film The Rider is a soulful contemporary western filmed on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota.Sony Pictures Classics

When you think of the ideal film director for a western, you might not consider a female Chinese immigrant who’s lived in Brooklyn for the past 12 years. Yet the Beijing-born writer-director Chloé Zhao, 35, is here to challenge your expectations.

“I’d only seen two westerns before I made The Rider,” Zhao says. “As an immigrant, I’m a blank canvas; I understand [the genre] intellectually, but I don’t have the layers of guilt or anger associated with that time in American history. Instead, I’m a cowboy trapped inside the body of a Chinese city girl.”

Zhao’s second feature, The Rider, is a soulful contemporary western filmed on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, where she also shot her 2015 debut Songs My Brothers Taught Me. The Rider is based on the real-life experiences of its star, Brady Jandreau, an ex-rodeo cowboy who survived a near-fatal head injury after being trampled by a horse in 2016. The film is a critical darling: It premiered in Cannes, where it won the prestigious Director’s Fortnight Art Cinema Award. It has since played at every important film festival in the world, including Sundance, TIFF, SXSW, Berlin and Telluride. And it earned her four nominations, including for best director and best feature, at the Film Independent Spirit Awards in March. Zhao is definitely not in South Dakota anymore.

“I’m exhausted but I’m very grateful,” Zhao says about her hectic year of world travel. “These days, when we’re all so used to being labelled into specific groups, you have to be very personal and specific to be universal. It’s been really encouraging to see how much people identity with someone like Brady, especially given the time we’re in.”

It could be difficult to empathize with a cowboy living on a Lakota Sioux reservation in this age of Trump tweets, yet The Rider is a story universal enough to heal its fractured country. That’s in large part due to a remarkable artistic collaboration between Zhao and Jandreau, a first-time actor whose centred, vulnerable performance opposite his actual father, sister and friends can’t help but break your heart. Whether caressing the flank of a horse or the staples in his skull, Jandreau is stoic as any cowboy John Wayne ever played, even when wielding a grocery-store scanner instead of a revolver.

“He calls me ‘the actor trainer,’” Zhao laughs. “That’s his go-to joke at Q&As now.”

The Rider is centred on an artistic collaboration between Zhao and Brady Jandreau, a first-time actor.Sony Pictures Classics

Like breaking in a wild horse, Zhao acknowledges the trust and patience required in an actor-director collaboration. She likens it to a communion between souls.

“The first time I saw Brady training horses, I was fascinated by the amount of focus you need around a wild animal; the ability to communicate and gain their trust,” she says. “You can tell people how to train a horse, but to make that connection, you need natural talent.”

And now that her own talent has led to award-winning success, she feels some pressure to help her horse trainer-turned-emerging actor find work.

“I’m like a stage mom – I try to put him out for things as much as I can,” Zhao says. “It’s tricky because he just had a daughter and he’s never not going to be riding and training horses. There are directors, like Terrence Malick, who thrive on silent moments. Brady’s already so good at all those little glances and tenses of the jaw. He might have more range than I know.”

The success of The Rider comes at a time when female filmmakers are more desirable commodities. Like many, Zhao is wary of being hired just to fill a quota.

“The moment any counter-cultural movement becomes the mainstream, we have to be careful,” says the filmmaker, whose next film will be a retelling of the life of Bass Reeves, the first black U.S. deputy marshal. “The mainstream agenda of the film industry is male and has always been. So while it’s important to break into their house and change the rules, we also need to build houses around them, so we can climb into each other’s windows.”

When asked how independent female filmmakers can continue to subvert the mainstream agenda when the opportunity to direct the next Marvel movie is all too real, Zhao urges them to look within themselves.

“It has to come from somewhere deep inside, that gut feeling that this is your story to tell,” she says. “The only way for women to be treated not just as equals, but as individuals, is for women to make films that are individual to them.”

The Rider opens April 27 in Toronto and Vancouver