Chattering Class

‘White Earth’ Shows an Oil Boom through a Child’s Eyes

Nominated for the Academy Award for best short documentary of 2014, the nineteen-minute-long "White Earth" examines the lives of the citizens of a small North Dakota town when an oil boom hits. Filmmaker J. Christian Jensen explains his choice to focus on the outsider perspective of children, rather than going the standard political documentary route.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Why did you choose to make a movie about this town?

J. Christian Jensen: I started hearing about this mass influx of people who were coming from all around the country, including my hometown of St. George, Utah, and I was really compelled by why people were doing that. It was sort of Steinbeckian. It was like this “Grapes of Wrath” kind of scenario. And so I went out there just hoping that I could find something that would, you know, be very compelling, some story that I could tell, and ultimately I fell on the story of these kids.

Brendan Francis Newnam: It’s interesting. So you’re talking about how many people moved there because all these job opportunities presented themselves when this oil was discovered in North Dakota, or they found easier ways to bring it up. And it sounds like you, too, went there to find work, and to pursue kind of your dream of making movies.

Director J. Christian Jensen

J. Christian Jensen: Yeah, yeah! And you know, I was not the only one. I was one of many marauding people with cameras and, you know, taking notes for news stories, and I actually knew that there had already been a substantial amount of press about the area, and a lot of people looking at the stories that were happening there. And so when I went into it, I said to myself, “If I’m gonna do this story, then I have to do something completely different than what other people are doing.” I wanted to look at it from the people that might be the last ones that a news interviewer would go and seek out, and to really get an unexpected set of voices to tell the story.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Yeah, your film doesn’t mention the words environment, energy, politics. It doesn’t discuss employment in America, or what cheaper energy means. Instead it focuses on the narration of three kids directly affected by this oil boom. Why did you decide to explore this topic that way?

J. Christian Jensen: You know, from the very beginning, I was interested in the voice of children. I’m definitely influenced by filmmakers like Terrence Malick; James Longley is a documentary filmmaker whose work has been really influential to me. The way that they use voices of children or outsiders telling a story about, you know, maybe even a major issue is really compelling. Outsiders don’t really have a strong stake in the institution, and so often their critiques or their thoughts are more honest or more direct. And that was one reason I wanted to focus on children. And also the fact that children, they’re always watching, they’re always listening, they’re always reflecting the things that they hear and see around them, outwardly, and in some ways it’s a way of getting at the adults through the children, because the kids are gonna give you a less sugar-coated look at what’s happening.

Brendan Francis Newnam: So one of the narrators is a young kid named James. He lives in one of the many makeshift trailer communities that you show us in “White Earth.” He doesn’t go to school, he stays home and plays video games, throws Chinese stars. Tell us a little bit more about him.

J. Christian Jensen: Yeah, I mean, James was definitely for me the heart of the film. He goes through an interesting arc. Initially and throughout most of the film, he’s somewhat critical of the oil and what’s happening, even though he’s there because his father is working for an oil company. But he always talks about, you know, kind of how horrible it is, but there’s this moment toward the end in which he sort of reveals that he too is caught up in almost this inevitable push toward economic choices. There was something sort of tragic about that, like this undercurrent, this flow, that pushes him toward this thing that he kind of dislikes and despises in other ways.

James, son of a North Dakota oil worker, in White Earth.


Brendan Francis Newnam: So this movie’s only nineteen minutes long. What makes for a good short documentary?

J. Christian Jensen: Yeah, I think the key with a short film is that you really, really, have to delineate what you’re going to focus on. You have to set a stake in the ground, you know, stylistically, or with the topic that you’re gonna focus on, and you really, really have to abide by that. And of course, the documentary form is improvisational, and there are things that you have to adapt and react to. But if you can create a set of constraints that will help dictate what you focus on, I think that what you get is gonna be so much more potent.

Brendan Francis Newnam: So are you going to attend the Academy Award ceremony?

J. Christian Jensen: Yeah, I’ll be attending with my wife. We’re both very excited. So, you know, she’s definitely out looking for her dress, and I guess I’ll have to find some sort of tux that will fit me properly.

Brendan Francis Newnam: And if you win, do you go to, like, is there a separate party for documentaries, like a short party at the library or something like that?

J. Christian Jensen: Yeah, yeah, they just kind of put us back in the broom closet and they say, “Have fun there.”

White Earth uses poetic images and narration from children to offer an alternative view of a hot-button issue.