Stanford filmmaker earns Oscar nomination for documentary

"White Earth" explores North Dakota's oil boom through unexpected eyes

When J. Christian Jensen set out for North Dakota to film his Stanford thesis project about the state's booming oil trade, he wasn't expecting the 20-minute piece to garner awards buzz.

Yet that's exactly what happened.

In June, Jensen won a silver medal from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Student Academy Awards for his film, "White Earth." Now, the film has been nominated for an Oscar in the Documentary Short Subject category.

"It's definitely a surreal experience to be nominated for an Oscar," the soft-spoken Jensen said during a phone interview with the Weekly. "I am very proud of the film. It certainly exceeded all my expectations in terms of how far it's gone and how many people have been able to see it."

"White Earth" follows three children and an immigrant mother and explores the effects of oil production on residents of the oil-boom region. Jensen started the project in the fall of 2012 and spent nine months working on the film in the small town of White Earth, North Dakota.

"My intention was to look at this very broad and controversial topic, but to leave the politics and the issues in the background and just foreground this human interest story," the filmmaker said. "I was particularly interested in doing an outsider's perspective, and perhaps looking at it from a set of voices that normally would be overlooked in the major media that has already covered this particular topic."

Jensen grew up in Utah. He saw how the housing market was hit hard in 2008 and heard stories of people moving to North Dakota "seeking out jobs and sources of income to save their own homes," he said.

Compelled by their plight, he headed to North Dakota with no resources, contact or central story. He eventually found some generous people who offered him a place to stay and helped him gain access to the local school and to a teacher. From that point on, the film began to come together.

The process of making "White Earth" was also challenging, Jensen explained. The filmmaker had to gain the trust of people in the community before capturing their lives on film. He attended the local church and hung out at bars with workers in the evenings. People sometimes offered up their homes. On cold winter nights when he didn't have a place to sleep, he slept in his car or in camps.

"The people in North Dakota were surprisingly open and kind to me," Jensen said. "I was not the only person who was reporting or filming in that area, and they were bombarded on a pretty regular basis by people interested in telling the story about that place or reporting on it. I'm not sure why they decided that they could trust me."

Jensen said the eye-opening experience has given him a greater sense of "respect and empathy" for the people living and working in North Dakota.

"The film was not intended to be an activist film or social issue film and so I'm not expecting that people leave with some preset perspective on oil development, but what I would like is that people have a greater sense of empathy and that people on all ends of the political spectrum would be able to have a more empathic look at those who are on the other side and a more realistic understanding of what is happening on the ground in North Dakota," he said.

The Oscar buzz surrounding the film has been a whirlwind experience, Jensen said, and it has been gratifying to see how excited so many people, including family, friends and distant acquaintances, are about the nomination.

"People have been very supportive and are sort of cheering for me, which feels good — that's almost the best part of it all," he said.

Jensen will be attending the Academy Awards ceremony on Feb. 22, at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood with his wife, who played an integral part in making the film possible, he said.

"She provided some excellent feedback as a story consultant and also in (other) types of support along the way. It was not an easy journey, so we're looking forward to enjoying that moment while it lasts," he said.

The film-making industry is competitive, Jensen said, but he believes aspiring filmmakers can succeed if they "can go deep and go personal. Then you certainly have something universal that you can offer up that will be of value to the rest of the world."

Jensen is currently lecturing at Stanford and hopes to find a place where he can continue his creative work, but right now he's just enjoying the moment of fame.

"I'm very grateful to have had this opportunity, but ultimately it's a short window of 15 minutes of fame that will come and go," he said. "You're only as good as your last project and whatever is coming down your creative pipeline, so we'll see what happens."

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