A loud ring jolted J. Christian Jensen (BA ’09) awake in the dark morning hours on Jan. 15. The news was unexpected but thrilling: his documentary short White Earth had just been nominated for an Academy Award.
The film, which follows an immigrant woman, her daughter, and two other children braving the frigid winter months in North Dakota’s oil fields, originally premiered at Park City’s 2014 Slamdance Film Festival. It received the Jury Award for best cinematography at Slamdance and continued to receive awards at other national and international film festivals.
The festival awards and Oscar nod are a high point in the budding career of a filmmaker who has been interested in documentaries since childhood. As a boy Jensen was enthralled by the National Geographic videos his mom checked out from the library, and as a teen, he started making videos with his parents’ video recorder. He chose BYU to help him hone his skills, and while at the Y, Jensen says, “I learned ways to tell human stories, find a creative spark, and identify my voice as a filmmaker.”
Theatre and media arts professor Brad A. Barber (BA ’01) remembers Jensen as being a “focused and passionate” BYU student. “It was clear he was going to succeed. While other students were still figuring out where the bookstore was, he was securing an internship with National Geographic,” Barber says.
The two have kept in touch, asking each other for input on their respective projects, and Jensen invited Barber to attend White Earth’s screening at a documentary film festival. “Strangers were telling me it was one of their favorite films,” Barber says.
White Earth reflects the tension Jensen is drawn to in his storytelling: “the tension between two different ideas, something unresolvable—without it a film appears flat, uninteresting, and even meaningless,” he says.
Though his film didn’t win the Oscar, Jensen says the nomination has opened up new opportunities for him, and he calls the whole experience “surreal and gratifying.”