Stanford Lecturer Goes for Gold at the Oscars Sunday Night

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Stanford lecturer and Oscar nominee J. Christian Jensen is getting Hollywood fever. Who wouldn't after mixing it up with Clint Eastwood at pre-Oscar parties this week in Los Angeles?

"It was definitely a shock," said Jensen, who is nominated for an Oscar Sunday night for "White Earth," his short documentary. "I mean, it feels surreal to be in that environment where you're among great legends of cinema like Clint Eastwood."

He also has a new respect for the film industry in Hollywood. After spending time in Los Angeles, he thinks less about glitz and glamour and more about  passion and commitment.

"I think the experience has caused me to reconsider some judgmental attitudes I've had about Hollywood," said Jensen.

J. Christian Jensen arrives at the 87th Annual Academy Awards Oscar Week Celebrates Documentaries at Samuel Goldwyn Theater on February 18, 2015 in Beverly Hills.
J. Christian Jensen arrives at the 87th Annual Academy Awards Oscar Week Celebrates Documentaries at Samuel Goldwyn Theater on February 18, 2015 in Beverly Hills. (Valerie Macon/Getty Images)

Now Jensen and his wife will be walking the red carpet on Oscar night with the glamorous people.

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His  journey from academia to Hollywood started in 2012, when he began shooting the documentary for his graduate thesis. At the time he was getting a master's in fine arts at Stanford as a documentary filmmaker.

He wanted to focus on the oil boom in North Dakota after his father told him that financially strapped families were leaving his hometown of St. George, Utah, and flocking to White Earth, North Dakota, to make money.

"The core of the film is a story about the American Dream," said Jensen. "And it's a film about a loss of innocence, and about individuals and families who are part of something that's much bigger than them."

Jensen also wanted to tell the story through the eyes and voices of children living in White Earth while their parents worked on the oil rigs.

"I think children have a way of cutting through some of the sugarcoating that we put in the things that we say," said Jensen. "They have a way of speaking truth, because they're perhaps less invested in the answers or in the way their portraying themselves."

White Earth is primarily narrated by a then 13-year-old boy named James McClellan.  Jensen was drawn to his compelling personality.

The short documentary "White Earth" is narrated primarily by then 13-year-old James McClellan.  Jensen wanted to tell the story through the eyes and voices of children.
The short documentary "White Earth" is narrated primarily by then-13-year-old James McClellan. Jensen wanted to tell the story through the eyes and voices of children. (Christian Jensen/White Earth Director)

"He speaks so authoritatively about things. Sometimes it isn't actually true, but he speaks with great authority," said Jensen. "At times he's very cynical about what's happening, but he's also very aware of the fact his father -- who was an oil worker -- was part of that world and he benefited from that."

Academy members nominated Jensen in the "best short documentary" category. The Stanford lecturer didn't bother to listen to the Oscar nominations, thinking he didn't have a chance.  Then he got a call from his dad in Utah yelling, "You're in. You're in."

His father and wife will go to the Academy Awards with him Sunday night while his mother and young son watch from a hotel.

The  competition in the short documentary category will be tough. But win or lose, Jensen says future film opportunities are already opening up.