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Utahn’s documentary nominated for Academy Award

(White Earth film/YouTube)



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SALT LAKE CITY — Christian Jensen said he is still in shock after learning his documentary short was nominated for an Oscar.

His film “White Earth” shows what life is like in North Dakota for three children and an immigrant mother during winter as an oil boom draws people to the state in search of work. The 20-minute documentary has won awards at numerous film festivals, but Jensen said he wasn’t expecting the Oscars nomination.

“I knew I’d been short listed, which was honestly amazing in and of itself, but I honestly didn't think I was going to make it past this date,” he said. “In fact, I didn't even wake up in the morning to see the announcement because I was so convinced I wouldn't. Fortunately my father did wake up and he called and was probably more excited than I have ever heard him.”

Jensen, who studied at Brigham Young University and now lectures at Stanford University, credits his father for the idea behind the documentary. Jensen grew up in St. George and said he observed how the housing market was hit hard in 2008. Soon he heard stories of people moving to North Dakota looking for work.


The city of Williston, which is very close to where my film was made, has some of the highest rents in the country, even higher than places like San Francisco and New York. It's really hard to survive there even if you're making good money.

–Christian Jensen, filmmaker


When he visited the state to see what was going on, he discovered the story shared in “White Earth.” Jensen said people were going there because they heard tales of how much money they could make, but not everything was as it seemed. People with certain skills could make a lot of money, but on the flip side housing prices in North Dakota were sky high.

“The city of Williston, which is very close to where my film was made, has some of the highest rents in the country, even higher than places like San Francisco and New York,” he said. “It's really hard to survive there even if you're making good money.”

Jensen has been working with film and media since high school and decided to focus on documentary work while studying at BYU. He went on to obtain a masters of fine arts in documentary in film and video from Stanford. He is currently teaching at Stanford, but has previously worked on films with National Geographic and PBS Frontline.

The documentary appeals to most people because it shares a series of American experiences and has a focus on family, according to Jensen. While filming, he encountered some of the challenges workers experience, like finding housing and dealing with extreme temperatures, and was impressed by the people he met.

“The idea of oil development and fracking, and all these sorts of issues that surround this story, it's very controversial. I definitely have a nuanced feeling of where I stand about that,” he said. “But in terms of the people, I have a great deal of respect for them. Most of them found themselves in a tough position and were doing what they could to make ends meet. And they were sort of pulling themselves up by their bootstraps. I think it's hard to blame anyone for doing that.”

Jensen said he hopes the film fosters empathy and creates an opportunity for people to understand each other as human beings, regardless of what side of the political spectrum they stand on.

“White Earth” can be streamed online.

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