BYU film graduate continues to win top awards

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The North Dakota oil boom has drawn tens of thousands of people looking for jobs from around the country. BYU grad Christian Jensen made a documentary of the city's boom. (Christian Jensen)
The North Dakota oil boom has drawn tens of thousands of people looking for jobs from around the country. BYU grad Christian Jensen made a documentary of the city’s boom. (Christian Jensen)

“White Earth” is the documentary of the North Dakota oil boom that has driven thousands to a once small town, shown from the unique perspectives of three children and an immigrant mother. The documentary, directed by BYU graduate Christian Jensen, has captivated audiences around the world.

“White Earth” has screened in over 30 film festivals and won top awards in many, including the Student Academy Award in Documentary, Grand Jury Prize at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival and a Jury Award at the Fargo Film Festival. It was also screened at local film festivals such as DocUtah.

Unlike shooting other types of film, Jensen did not have much opportunity to set up the scenes in the documentary. Getting footage for the oil work was especially challenging because of weather and access issues.

“Most of it was shot under cover of night and fog, or with the help of a few anonymous oil workers,” Jensen said.

Understandably, one of the most difficult parts of filming a documentary is the fact that there are no lines or scripted scenes. Instead, all the scenes are filmed naturally and the director needs to be able to capture the story in the moment.

“Unlike in fiction movies, you’re not working with a script,” said Brad Barber, a professor at BYU’s film school. “You’re writing your story as you go.”

While environmental and economic issues were present in the background of the film, Jensen did not intend “White Earth” to be a political or activist film.

“I wanted to create a visual and emotional portrait of the unforgettable landscape I saw before me,” Jensen said. “The image of oil rigs dotting the prairie, fog and flames perpetually coming from the ground looked like an alien invasion.”

The film is shown through the eyes of four subjects: James, who had been unable to enroll into the local school and is left to wander the town and play video games, Leevi, a 5th grader whose family has lived in North Dakota for generations, Elena and her mother, Flor, who immigrated into the United States.

“I learned of North Dakota’s historic oil rush when I heard about a mass exodus of men and women from my native Southern Utah,” Jensen said.

Students hoping to watch the film can still see it at the Logan Film Festival on September 27.

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