North Dakota was a national punchline for decades, a flat, arid state that was losing population and seemed more remote from “The Real America” with every passing year.
“Fargo” wasn’t just a film title, it was a state of isolation, one of many things Minnesota’s Coen Brothers nailed when they set their greatest crime picture against the wintry backdrop of Minnesota and North Dakota, where the people are unfailingly polite and affirm everything, even a complaint, with a little “you betcha.”
But the exploitation of The Bakken here has put the state back on the national map and at the center of any discussion of the environment, fracking, energy policy and the economy. Oil country is enjoying an old fashioned “boom,” with workers living in their cars as they flood into the over-stretched villages and towns, former ghost towns that find themselves with scores of new schoolkids, thousands who need everything from housing to social services. Like any boom town you’ve ever seen in the movies (“Paint Your Wagon” and “Oklahoma Crude” and “North to Alaska” come to mind), those social necessities lag behind the bars and rental property speculators that show up the moment there’s well-paid workforce ready to be exploited.
Filmmakers are discovering this epic news story in their midst and making movies about The Bakken (the name of the shale oil rock formation in the Williston Basin). And the Fargo Film Festival is bringing them home. A couple of the best short documentaries I’ve seen this year are “White Earth,” about the children of the oil boom, and “Sweet Crude Man Camp,” the stark black and white film I’ve linked here that captures the sweeping changes that hit this region. When I lived in North Dakota in the ’80s, I learned to be very careful about filling the tank before clearing Devil’s Lake or Bismarck. I distinctly recall panicking a bit with a bone dry tank, pulling off in Stanley and little villages on either side of it, looking for gas. The last filling station had closed up in so many of those towns, the empty houses outnumbering the occupied ones, that it really did seem the state was emptying out to become that “Buffalo Commons” idea, a prairie returned to the only animals fit to live here. Not any more.