'White Earth' Takes a Meditative Look at a Boom Town
By Tom White
Just as California beckoned Americans westward in the mid-19th century and then the Great Depression, with the promise of a better, more prosperous life, North Dakota, with its burgeoning oil industry, has transformed itself into a mecca for farflung chasers of the American Dream. And while the state has enjoyed the lowest unemployment rate in the nation over the past several years, North Dakotans have witnessed a significant disruption in culture and community.
Filmmaker J. Christian Jensen, like several documentary makers before him, went to North Dakota in search of a story. He came back with White Earth, an impressionistic meditation on hope, change and migration, as articulated by three children and one immigrant mother.
We spoke to Jensen via email about North Dakota, his artistic choices in the film, and the beauty of the short form.
Since the oil boom in North Dakota began in roughly 2006, we have seen a number of documentaries that have tackled this phenomenon of a boom-town culture and how the state has been transformed—for better or worse. What was your initial vision for your documentary?
When I set out to make White Earth, I was aware of several high-profile films that were being funded by major players in the doc world. I nearly bagged the idea for fear of treading the same ground as a larger, better-funded project. But when I landed in North Dakota for the first time on an early research trip, I was so possessed by the images I saw, I couldn’t get them out of my head.
I arrived at dusk in the late fall, and you just see miles of wheat fields peppered with occasional pump jacks; however, once the sun sets, the landscape is totally transformed. Light from drilling rigs can be seen for miles, and flames from natural gas flares are bursting out of the ground everywhere. It truly felt like an otherworldly invasion. I kept having visions of Werner Herzog’s Lessons of Darkness.
I decided that rather than abandon the project, I needed to restrict myself to a very specific topic and stylistic approach so as not to overlap. As it turns out, the Bakken oil boom is such a complex topic, there has been plenty of room for filmmakers to tell fascinating stories without treading the same ground. One of my favorites is The Overnighters, which was filmed not far from White Earth. It is a completely different cinematic experience and one of the best films of the last year.
Despite the oil boom, North Dakota is still, comparatively speaking, a sparsely populated state. How did you happen upon White Earth, and what was it about the town that made you decide that this would be the central setting for your film?
White Earth is a film about misfits and people on the periphery. In many ways, the town of White Earth—like the boy who inhabits it—is also a misfit. It’s full of derelict buildings and is far enough off of Highway 2 that most people hardly know it’s there; yet every single day, trains pull hundreds of oil cars right through the center of town. White Earth has experienced the same growing pains as other towns in the Bakken region, and RVs and temporary dwellings are littered all over the place.
I discovered White Earth through Justin Labar, the elementary school teacher who appears briefly in the film. His family had lived there for many years and aside from being a teacher, he was also a bus driver, a nighttime oil services worker and a religious minister. It was through Justin that I met James, the film’s central character. Because James spent his lonely days wandering around town, it felt like the film should begin there. The name “White Earth” worked as a title on so many different levels, but many other scenes in the film were filmed in nearby towns like Stanley, Ross and Blaisdell.
You make some singular artistic choices in driving your story—namely, having three children and the wife of one of the workers as your de facto narrators. Talk about how you arrived at this choice, and also having them speak off-camera, rather than on-camera.
I really believe that putting stylistic constraints on films makes them stronger. One constraint that I often abide by is not having traditional on-camera interviews. Most of the characters in White Earth are children, and I didn’t want to subject them to the tyranny of lights and a camera in their faces. It would have made them too self-conscious. Instead, we tried to turn the interview process into a game. We built a fort out of blankets, pillows and light stands, and then I would ask them questions with a microphone in between joking around or eating snacks. The kids were more at ease, and the sound quality was much better.
A lot of the off-camera narration style was dictated by James, who was constantly spouting off facts and information about the oil boom region. He was very precocious and he said things with such authority that I didn’t even care whether or not they were true. They were true to him, and they become “true” within the world of the film. I love the idea of an unreliable narrator. It sort of turns the expectations of our genre on its head.
Along those lines, you opted not to include the voices of the breadwinners—the oil workers—as well as oil industry executives, politicians and pundits. Did you interview any of these figures initially?
I made a deliberate, early decision to steer clear of people who had a really vested economic or political interest in the oil work. I’m not particularly interested in rhetorical or activist filmmaking and I didn’t want to get bogged down in the politics of it all. I had no doubt that other filmmakers and reporters would be covering that territory far better than I could. Instead, I wanted to hear from those who ended up in the oil fields almost as an afterthought to economic motivations.
I did consider including breadwinners—in fact, the initial treatment for the film was built around a single family, including the father who worked on a drilling rig. A week before I was supposed to begin production, he called me and said his wife had left him and moved back to Minnesota with the kids. I had to do a quick pivot and I decided to delineate even further toward the voices of children and the immigrant mother. The men were relegated to the background. It was a blessing in disguise for the film and a reminder that the improvisational nature of documentary is often what makes it so beautiful.
The short documentary form poses a lot of challenges—but also opens many creative possibilities. At what point in your process did you know that White Earth would be a short film, rather than a feature? What is it about the short form that appeals to you?
White Earth was conceived as a short film from the very beginning. Part of that was a practical consideration. It was my thesis film within Stanford University’s Documentary Film and Video program. I had finite time (nine months) to plan, shoot and edit the film while still keeping up with a full load of academic courses; making a feature within those constraints would have been impossible.
The story certainly could have been given feature-length treatment afterward (there have been many requests to do so), but turning it into a longitudinal story would have fundamentally changed its nature. I like that it is a brief meditation on a place during a specific season. I wanted to touch on themes and raise questions, but leave most tensions unresolved for the audience to grapple with.
Making short films is really liberating. You go into it with very little expectation of financial return, and the lower cost of making them also frees you from the pressure of making your films more conventional so that they can be more marketable. I love the challenge of taking an audience through a range of emotions in a short period of time. I feel like it can only make you better as a long-form filmmaker.
You can see White Earth at DocuDay LA, the IDA's annual celebration of the feature and short documentary films nominated for the Academy Award®. The film will screen at 11:25 a.m. on Saturday, February 21, at the Writer's Guild of America Theater as part of Shorts Program I with fellow nominees Our Curse and Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1.
Tom White is editor of Documentary magazine / documentary.org.