BYU grad heads to Academy Awards for documentary ‘White Earth’

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A frigid, white blanket of snow covers the desolate landscape of North Dakota. Bitter winds strike the skin of children’s faces on their way home from school, if they even went to school. The oil fields are fired up with the smell of crude oil and money in the air. All this is portrayed in the Oscar-nominated documentary “White Earth” by filmmaker and BYU alumnus J. Christian Jensen.

BYU alumnus J. Christian Jensen is the director of the documentary short film “White Earth,” which was nominated for the Oscars. (Shaelynn Marne)

“White Earth” was Jensen’s graduate thesis film at Stanford University and was on the academy’s list for the documentary short film category. It eventually led to a surprise phone call from his father, Jim Jensen, informing him of his Academy Award nomination in the early morning of Jan. 8.

The northern states have experienced an influx of out-of-work migrant workers to this oil boom region due in large part to the economic housing collapse in 2008. Despite the opportunities for money in the frigid temperatures of North Dakota, many people find their cost of living higher and their quality of living lower. This mass migration intrigued J. Christian Jensen to dig deeper into the phenomenon.

Despite his recent Oscar nomination, Jensen refuses to succumb to the sometimes chaotic world of the entertainment industry.

“I’m not interested in facts, figures, debating issues or being an activist in my work,” Jensen said.

Jamie Meltzer, Jensen’s mentor and professor at Stanford University, agrees that Jensen is not in the business of stirring up a controversial subject but rather seeing a fresh perspective on a politically charged issue.

“The film doesn’t make judgements that the viewer has to accept about oil or gas development in North Dakota, but it rather leads the viewer to really think about this larger political and social issue from a fresh and unusual perspective,” Meltzer said.

Jensen chose to tell this story from the perspective of children because of their different take on life and the world around them.

“Children are always watching, they’re always listening, but they’re often forgotten and sort of on the sidelines, especially when it comes to major economic decisions and things of that nature,” Jensen said. “Children have a way of speaking truth that is less sugar-coated than adults.”

Child of a migrant oil worker, James McClellan tells his perspective of the oil industry in North Dakota in “White Earth.” (J. Christian Jensen)

Jensen said he is more interested in people and universal struggles humans all have. He wants the people who watch his films to feel more empathy for others who are different than they are and unite people together.

Jensen’s love for his faith also influences his work. Jensen said being LDS informs many of the creative decisions he makes but does not dictate what he does or thinks. He said there are distinct LDS faith themes deeply embedded into his creative works.

Jensen graduated from BYU in media arts with an emphasis in documentary film and recently received his MFA in documentary film and video from Stanford University. He credits some of his mentors, BYU professors Dean Duncan and Brad Barber, for helping to broaden his mind in different ways to unique types of narrative and philosophical approaches to cinema.

“(BYU) was a hugely important aspect of my development as a filmmaker,” Jensen said. “It was at BYU that I truly discovered that documentary was my passion. It was through the courses and the faculty in that program that I really had my mind opened and expanded to the different possibilities for cinema and storytelling.”

BYU Professor Dean Duncan knew Jensen was something special during his time in the film program.

“He took the subject seriously; a lot of people talk big and act little,” Duncan said. “It was evident he was a documentarian, not for fame. He wanted to make a difference in the world and be a citizen, which is what documentarians are.”

Jensen’s father, Jim Jensen, first gave him the idea for “White Earth.”

“Living in St. George back in 2009 when the housing market crashed, there were a lot of people out of work,” Jim Jensen said. “So we started seeing a lot of our neighbors where either the husband or the whole family would move up (to North Dakota). I thought that since there was a lot of migration going on, it would be an area for a good story.”

Jensen said he wanted to see this great upheaval of people migrating up north for the oil boom firsthand because he knew there was a great story lying there. Something inside him was moved when he learned about families being uprooted by moving to a completely new and desolate place.

His curiosity paid off, and he was able to use his resources and mentors at Stanford University to help bring light to this unique Northern migration for his graduate thesis film.

Jensen is currently in the beginning stages of his next film, which he says will be a feature documentary.

Jensen believes thinking outside the box and finding out what really moves them are valuable assets to young filmmakers who want a successful career in the entertainment business.

“BYU provides an amazing place where you can explore different themes and learn more about yourself,” Jensen said. “I would encourage students to not try and be a cheap imitation of someone or something else, but to dig deep and find out what makes them unique and different from another creative person out there.”

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