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My Country No More
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Rider watches the sun set behind a natural gas flare near Trenton, ND
Rider watches the sun set behind a natural gas flare near Trenton, ND.

In early 2011, Kalie Rider, a 36-year-old dietician from Trenton, ND, felt her rural quality of life disintegrating. Under the siege of North Dakota’s new oil boom, heavy truck traffic, surging man camps and whirlwind industrialization were overtaking the tranquil prairie and farmland in northwest North Dakota where Rider’s family has lived and worked for generations. A train load-out facility for crude oil moved out 100,000 barrels of oil a day, built on land once owned by Rider’s neighbors and family. When the owner lending land to Rider’s country church considered reclaiming the land to sell for an oil refinery, Rider sat stunned in the sanctuary of tiny Trinity Lutheran Church. “It was all so surreal, I felt like I was in a documentary,” says Rider. “Stuff like this always happens to someone else, somewhere else.”

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Then someone reminded Rider her former pastor’s son was a documentarian. Rider contacted Jeremiah Hammerling, who grew up in Fargo and is now an independent filmmaker in California. Hammerling flew back to his home state to meet with Kalie and other local residents. “I’ve always wanted to make a film about North Dakota,” says Hammerling. “When people ask, ‘what’s it like growing up in the middle of nowhere?,’ I say, it’s not exactly what you think.’ For this film, our eye was set on asking, what does it look like when a fight over a rural area takes place, especially when all those people have been neighbors for their entire lives and they’ve depended on each other?”

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Six years in the making, My Country No More, follows Kalie, her rancher brother Jed, farmer Uncle Roger and others as they reflect on the conflict and opportunity before them. They attend strained county commission meetings. Jawlines tense and arms cross as neighbors point to zoning maps and debate progress and development against land owner rights and life-quality issues. Kalie’s Uncle Roger is haunted by regret for selling land originally slated for an ethanol plant, but rezoned for the load-out facility.

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The film also tracks Ruben Valdez, a 50-something oil industry worker the film crew met in the Walmart parking lot in Williston, ND. Sleeping in his truck amidst many others doing the same in pursuit of oil field work, Valdez came to North Dakota from the Denver area. Valdez’s first job was general carpentry building worker housing (i.e., man camps) for Mann Energy. Working his way up over three years, Valdez went from pumper, to clean-up crew foreman, to manageroperator of a saltwater disposal well. “It was good while it lasted,” says Valdez. “One year I earned $93,000. Another, it was like $86,000. They were wonderful years.” When the well was sold to White Owl Energy, Valdez was laid off. “I was pretty high-priced, and they were able to replace me with somebody at a lesser rate.” Now Valdez does day labor. He sees the industry picking up again and says, with his experience, he can be very selective. “Soon the major oil-industry companies will be hiring again and I hope I’ll find a good, reliable job I can hopefully retire on.” But Valdez says he remains in Williston for the quality of life and the people. “You can’t beat the folks here, the slower pace.”

Eight years on since Rider initially contacted filmmaker Hammerling, Rider says the “craziness” in the Trenton area has slowed as oil prices have declined and the frenzy of widening roads and constructing storage, loading terminals, and housing has decreased. One irony that has transpired since the oil industry changed the area is Rider’s attitude toward it. “I’ve always loved where I live and feel connected to it,” says Rider. “But to be honest I like Williston now more than my whole time growing up. We have such an interesting diversity of people now. The influx of outsiders has created demand for all the stuff I’m really interested in, like healthier food. But what has happened to the rural landscape has gotten worse. It’s a tradeoff, and not a good one, overall.”

When My Country No More was recently screened at a film festival in Missoula, Rider and Valdez spent a lot of time together. “Yeah, we hung out,” says Rider. “A lot of people I know, clients and friends, they’re in the oil field. I co-exist with everybody. It’s not like you can be separate. I think for the most part people understand each other. It’s the influx of money, at the land level, at the neighbor level, that really turns people against each other. My fights, if you can call them that, were not against people coming in. It was against people I’ve known my whole life.”

Independent Lens: My Country No More premieres Monday, Jan. 7, at 9pm (8 MT) on SDPB1.