“I would like people to have a much more nuanced look at what is happening there, and I would like them to see in some small way the way that the oil industry has affected a community of people and to think long and hard whether that is something they want in their own community.”
The Academy Awards are this Sunday, and one of the films nominated is a documentary short about the oil boom in North Dakota as seen through the eyes of three children and an immigrant mother. I interviewed the director J. Christian Jensen about ‘White Earth’ and what it might mean for other communities impacted by the fossil fuel industry.
Watch the trailer below:
Q: What drew you to this location and this story?
A: I first heard about what was happening in North Dakota from my father who lives in southern Utah, in St George. There were a lot of people that were leaving my home town because of the bad situation, the housing market crash, and many of them were moving either by themselves or with their families to North Dakota. It was this economic promise land and it really felt like something from the ‘Grapes of Wrath.’ These people moving up in their cars and trucks and looking for work. So, that’s what led me to North Dakota.
What really sold me on sticking with the story and following through was when I arrived for the first time. It was around sunset in the late fall in 2012 and as I started driving across the highway – you just see miles and miles of wheat fields, and it kind of harkened on all these images I had in my head of the heartland. But, as the sun set, the transformation on the land became so dramatic because there were flames coming out of the ground as far as the eyes could see, and oil rigs with light that made it look like something sort of alien invasion and constant truck traffic, and the sounds. It really felt like something post-apocalyptic. And those images really stuck with me. I felt like I wanted to get to the bottom of those images in a small way.
Q: Out of all the different towns, what drew you to White Earth specifically?
A: My film is about people on the outside, misfits, people on the periphery. Just like the characters in the film, I felt like White Earth was sort of a misfit town. It was far enough outside of the highway that most people wouldn’t really know it was there and it was old and lot of derelict buildings. And it was also the home of this boy James who becomes sort of the heart of the film and the film’s narrator. I was just compelled by this tiny town, and the fact that multiple times a day hundreds of oil tankards passed through that town heading to who knows where. So it felt like this little microcosm of what was happening all across the region.
Q: What kind of research did you do in the lead up to making this film?
A: I tried not to go into it with a really strong political stance about what should or shouldn’t be happening there. I wanted to delineate my story to be about the people and even moreso, the people that you probably wouldn’t hear from in the major media coverage of what was happening. I learned about the process of fracking, which has driven the boom so I could have a sense of what kinds of technologies and what kinds of processes were being used. And that was very important so that I could speak the language and understand what people were doing.
Q: Besides the people you spotlight in the film, are there other perspective you met whose stories you wish you could also tell.
A: What’s happening in North Dakota and the regions it is so huge that there are limitless numbers of stories that could be told in a very compelling way. I met women who were working there in very much a man’s world, a man’s environment. I would have loved to tell some of their stories. And I was also very interested in the way that the locals, many of them, farmers and ranchers were having their lives transformed – sometimes through wealth. Vast wealth that was coming to them, and the conflicts and the tensions that arose out of that new found wealth and the fact that one farmer could be making millions and his next door neighbor could be making nothing – and how it might divide families who have grown up for generations next to each other. So there were a lot of stories I would have loved to tell, but just couldn’t given the constraints of my film.
Q: Were people welcoming to you? Were they eager to tell you their story or were some people more hostile to you being there recording?
A: There were definitely some people who were hostile. Largely because there were so many people out there – making films, reporting for the news, many of whom who had strong political leanings or leanings what was happening out there. And they were resistant to being misrepresented or made to look bad in some way. However, I was really surprised by generally how welcoming people were – especially the locals, the North Dakotans. They were so nice, and most of them allowed me into their home, tried to help me get access to some of the oil sites. The locals themselves were quite open and transparent about what was happening, but where I always seemed to get hung up was when I tried to engage with or get permission from the oil companies themselves and almost every single one of those experiences ended in failure.
Q: Were people aware of the negative environmental or climate impacts or was it just never part of their thought process?
A: I think that most of the people that were involved in the work were either politically leaned in some way that they really didn’t care that much about the larger environmental impact or the narrative that surrounds that – or there was a lot of willful ignorance or self-deception about what was happening. And almost anyone could hide behind the immediate economic needs they had.
It’s so complex, how can you judge someone that is really going to great lengths to try and provide for their family if they truly don’t have other options. It’s really difficult for me to judge someone in that situation. And for me, my sense was – and I heard this from a lot of people – ‘we all use this energy, people of all political leanings use this energy, using this oil- and we’re the ones doing the dirty work in order that they can have what they need.’ And so sometimes they felt targeted and misrepresented by people that are against the oil. And even I myself wondered – if we as a society continue to not make the changes in our energy priorities so that we do need this energy source, maybe we should be forced to see it in our back yard, maybe we shouldn’t be letting other countries do the dirty work. And perhaps if we saw what it does to our own land and landscape we might have a greater incentive to change our energy priorities on a much larger scale. I don’t know if that’s the answer, but it was something I frequently found myself thinking.
Q: Yourself being from southern Utah, the extractive industry is a very real presence isn’t it?
A: Yes, and that’s something I’m very close to. There’s definitely a battle brewing in southern Utah where my home is. The lands that are under threat are places that are very dear to me because I’m a big outdoor canyoneer and I very much have a deep sense of love for the wild places in southern Utah. And that’s something I will actively fight, because that is my place and that is my land, and it’s still my home. It’s a place where I have an especially strong stewardship and I think that the costs far outweigh the benefits.
Q: What are the some takeaways you want people to have after seeing your film?
A: I think that one of the main takeaways of my film is I would like people to have a much more nuanced look at what is happening there, and I would like them to see in some small way the way that the oil industry has affected a community of people and to think long and hard whether that is something they want in their own community. Ultimately, we are the stewards over the places we live, and the more knowledge and long term understanding about those places, the better we will be at making those decisions. Any time that outside forces come in seeking to capitalize off of a region, I think that there needs to be a very strong power balance between those forces and the local people. And not just a balance of who can say who is able to allow or disallow what happens, but also a balance of information. And if people are truly informed and given a very long term view of the pros and cons of the decisions they’re are making, then I think that people are more likely to make wise decisions they will not regret one or two generations down the road.