The first frames of the short film White Earth depict an otherworldly landscape of endless white plains and the tall churning structures of the oil industry; a fusion of man and land only decoded through the innocence and clarity of child voices. The short depicts the effects of industrialization on families who have migrated to the small town of White Earth, North Dakota, in their search for employment in the mining industry. Children give voice to the struggles of this migration, through a thoroughly sincere narration unclouded by cynicism or expectation.
Director, producer and Stanford alum, J. Christian Jensen ‘13 created this poignant 20 minute documentary as his thesis project for Stanford’s MFA documentary film program, and White Earth screened at this year’s United Nations Association Film Festival. I was extremely lucky to meet with Jensen at Coupa Café last Wednesday. Jensen arrived by bike, slightly ruffled from flying out from the east coast and rushing out to meet me.
Nevertheless, Jensen articulated his intention to depict the lives of the families of oil workers with precision and poise. “I initially came to the idea when I heard about a mass exodus of workers leaving from my hometown in St. George, Utah,” he said. “It was a town that was booming in the housing markets up until the economy tanked and then all of a sudden everyone was leaving.” Although the oil boom had begun in 2006, it was only a few years later that the press had begun to start discussing the ramifications for both families and the industry.
Jensen flew out to White Earth in the fall of 2012. Without any specific idea of what he wanted to capture, he knew that he wanted to “utilize the voice of a child, at least one child, to get at this story from a different perspective”. During several research trips of seven to ten days each, he talked to a number of families, and brought his own personal camera to capture the landscape. It was inspiring visually from the very beginning; he recounts, “It was sort of otherworldly, like nothing I’d ever seen before.” This is evident in the film, as the landscape has an unnatural glow from the fracking mechanisms that cover the landscape, but also a natural shadowy tenor of scenes hidden from the suburban and urban world.
Although he initially wanted to interview workers in the oil industry, he met resistance in a suspicious bureaucracy of permission-giving and media-anxiety. He thus “shifted to looking at the way that these industrial processes existed in the landscape,” a landscape both natural and emotional. He said that he “wanted it to be a nuanced, intimate exploration of people, and children,” spurring more prevalent themes of juxtaposing industry against environment, technology against nature. The male oil workers exist in the background, while what are normally peripheral voices of children and family members are brought center stage, and express themselves with remarkable clarity.
Although Jensen had made plans to focus on a single family, a week before he was to start production, Jensen received a call from the father explaining changed family circumstances and their inability to continue with the film. He recalls, “I had to sort of pivot really quick to do something else. And fortunately I had cast a really wide net when I was doing my research, and I had met a couple children, and there was one child in particular, whose name was James that I met by chance.” We meet James, an adolescent boy living with his father, from the outset of the film. His commentary is unusual and compelling, as he is sharply conscious of the central paradoxes of the circumstances of the town of White Earth, which is slowly growing, but without the infrastructural capacity for this growth.
Jensen pointed out that James “commented about the world… and he didn’t just speak about his own life, he spoke about the things happening around him. He sort of became this Greek chorus for the film that narrates or interjects these thoughts.” James brings an intense sincerity to the film through his ability to see beyond his personal experience, pulling in the audience with a mature commentary that seems beyond his age. Through James, the short displays a sincerity of intersubjective truth, rather than individual authenticity.
In order to gain this narration from the children, Jensen created a game that made interviewing a comfortable experience, and catered to a short attention span: “We built a fort out of blankets, pillows, furniture,” he said. “It served two purposes. It made it into an adventure, but it also made a quiet sound environment.” Inside the fort, the children would speak about their experiences, while Jensen sat outside with his sound equipment.
All of the children who narrate the film do so with a simple ease, and are equally compelling in their insights. The children recognise the changing nature of the town now that there are a “lot of new people,” that means that the town is much more dangerous that it had once been. One girl summarises: “I think that the oil is a good thing at sometimes and a bad thing at some points.” As the children verbalise more obvious day to day struggles, such as the difficulty of living in the cramped space of their family RV, the drawbacks of this unsustainable migration are made obvious and clear. Perhaps the simplest explanations for these complicated situations can often be the truest.
Amongst the number of child narrators, a single mother also narrates a section of the film. Although her adult narration is radically different from the adolescent voices heard in the rest of the film, Jensen included her because “everything that she said was directly addressing her children and her family and their experiences.” In her narration, she expresses that her one hope for her children is “that they become better than me and my husband and that they never have to uproot their families.” Her self awareness is raw and genuine, and heartbreaking rather than pitiful, reflecting what Jensen rightly termed as “gumption.”
When I asked about the clear absence of father figures, Jensen posed a number of questions: “Is it the father’s job to bring home the bacon, even if that means spending several days or weeks away from the family at a time and then coming back? Or is it the father’s job to be present? And what sort of sacrifices does a family have to make in order for a father to be present?” And who better knows the answers to these questions than the children themselves? James quite plainly reveals that living with an absent father is not enough, although his father calls constantly during the day, saying what James summarises as “I love you, son, I’ll talk to you later, I just want to check on you.”
Altogether, Jensen spurs a factual kind of documentary expression for one that is intensively visual and emotional. His style echoes Terrence Malick, juxtaposing disembodied voices with impressionistic images in order to evoke an emotional response. He quite effectively transitions between scenes, making jump cuts from video games to stony landscapes, from cigarette lights to the flames of oil rigs. Jensen’s perfect contrast of man and landscape illustrates the way that industrialization does not exist in a vacuum, but rather bleeds into the individual home and American family.
By the end of the short, James expresses his conscious short sightedness about the future, saying “I don’t care about the oil, because it’s not like I’m 18 yet.” This is the most compelling aspect of this film–the simple sincerity of a young boy who doesn’t see far into his future, and lives only in the present. Overall, White Earth successfully conveys the pressing need for us to examine our own shortsightedness towards the effects of industrialization on families in America, and how we can better support these families by building more secure infrastructure and support systems. Through this short, Jensen eschews irony and skepticism, instead captivating audiences through deeply felt sincerity.
White Earth has screened at a plethora of festivals this year, from Slamdance to Sydney Film Festival, and has been taken home awards for Best Short and Best Cinematography, just to name a few. White Earth was recently shortlisted for an Oscar nomination for Documentary Short Subject, with nominations to be announced mid-January, 2015.
More information on the film can be found at http://whiteearthmovie.com/ and https://www.facebook.com/WhiteEarthMovie.
Photos courtesy of http://whiteearthmovie.com/