J. Christian Jensen was so certain his short documentary White Earth wouldn’t be selected for an Academy Award nomination, he didn’t even wake up to see the awards nomination announcement on the morning of January 15.
But his film, a haunting look at life in a hardscrabble North Dakota Bakken oil town as seen through the eyes of its children, was one of five films selected from 60 nominees in the short documentary film category.
Jensen spent nine months working on the brooding 20-minute piece in and around the small town of White Earth, which has experienced population growth from 60 to 500 amid the oil boom.
“It’s a ‘Grapes of Wrath‘ scenario, with families pouring into town to live in trailers and hunt for work,” said Jensen. “They come for the money they think they can make. Some make it, some don’t. The economics are brutal.”
The story centers around 13-year-old James McClellan, who doesn’t much care for the oil industry. He’s left alone to amuse himself while his father works in the oil fields. When the film was made, he was not attending school because his father moved from trailer to trailer and they never had a permanent residence.
“As soon as I met him, I knew I had my narrator. He’s the film,” said Jensen. “He’s so smart and compelling and he has very strong criticisms about oil. Although he is also aware that some day he may have to go to work in the fields himself.”
Jensen says that White Earth “is not an issue film, but I wanted to give people a more empathetic look at this world. The film can be bleak, it can be harsh, because it’s about the worst of the American dream, but there is light in it as well.”
Here is a two-minute trailer from the film, which, at 20 minutes, is the shortest of the films nominated in its category. If you’d like to see the entire film, you can rent it for $3.99.
Other short documentary film nominees include Joanna, from Poland; Our Curse, also from Poland; Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1, from the United States; and La Parka (The Reaper), from Mexico.
Jensen’s bio, from his web site:
Christian entered the media profession as a journalist – a passion that lead to work as a documentary filmmaker. Early in his career he worked on a variety of non-fiction productions including ones for National Geographic Film & Television, PBS FRONTLINE and American Experience. He also worked on a film at a remote leprosy (i.e. Hansen’s Disease) colony on Kalaupapa, Hawaii. While studying media arts as an undergraduate at Brigham Young University, Christian wrote and directed a broadcast-length documentary called Sou da Bahia [I’m from Bahia] about art and Afro-Brazilian identity in Northeastern Brazil. He co-curated a multiple medium art exhibit by the same name to accompany the film’s premier throughout the U.S. and Latin America.
Having lived or worked in Brazil, China, and India Christian is interested in films that explore stories in newly industrialized nations. He is also fascinated by topics of spirituality, science, technology and their collision with modern society. He has worked in a variety of production roles over the years but his most recent professional work has been as a non-fiction editor and producer for television and web outlets. Christian has shot and directed several documentary shorts over the past two years at Stanford University where he recently completed his graduate studies in the MFA Program in Documentary Film & Video.