Not to be hyperbolic, but The Overnighters is one of the best documentaries I’ve ever seen. It is timely. It is also provocative in its subject matter and a matter of controversy in the small North Dakota town where the story unfolds. All on account of the economic changes due to a boom in hydraulic fracturing (“fracking,” for short) in northern states. Akin to the California gold rush, the black gold of North Dakota’s shale deposits has caused an explosion of job growth and opportunity. Williston, ND, a sleepy prairie community became a boomtown with the population expanding from less than 15,000 residents in 2010 to more than 20,000 in 2013. The sharp increase is a direct result of the oil boom, but while the town’s prosperity sharply increased many in the community found disfavor with the influx of outsiders, feeling they were being invaded by job seekers.
Jesse Moss, the documentary filmmaker behind The Overnighters, was fascinated by the idea of a modern day boom town. So, when he read a column in the Williston Herald newspaper by a local clergyman and what he was doing about the influx of people coming to town, Jesse grabbed a camera and headed to Williston. It was there he met Pastor Jay Reinke of the Concorida Lutheran Church. Moss would spend eighteen months and saw the affects the job seekers were having on the town. The collection of footage gives us a vast array of personalities – from job seekers looking for employment to broken men looking to for second chances. Along the way, the blending of old and new populations gives way to powder keg of opposition from a town concerned about poverty, joblessness and whether or not a place of worship should be a haven for “outsiders.”
Upon viewing The Overnighters I was reminded of a film the “First Lady of Inside Pulse Movies” Jenny Richards had sent my way called Seven Deadly Words. The independent release presents a story of what occurs when a new pastor sets out to change things with a church that is hemorrhaging money. The church is out of touch and lacking strong leadership. But a cut to foreign missions spending doesn’t sit well with some of the congregation who question We’ve never done it that way before.
With fracking operations expanding the demand for labor caused rental property to soar in North Dakota, reaching a point that made it difficult for the newly arrived to make a fresh start from the bottom up. Pastor Reinke, believing it to be his Christian duty to help those in need, began to allow some of these temporarily homeless individuals to sleep in their vehicles in the church parking lot. Those without vehicles got to bunk in the church as they looked for work. Word soon spreads around the town and Reinke’s actions draw ire from the community and his congregation. The hundreds of out-of-towners present trouble as these “overnighters” became an eyesore and a burden. Things are dicey as a result and the situation becomes more complex with a revelation in the third act that further illustrates that the truth is always stranger than fiction.
Moss does his best to give us other personalities other than Reinke. This includes the pastor’s assistant Alan Mezo, who started out as an overnighter and had job opportunities but finds greater purpose and redemption in helping others. Managing space and logistics, the effort to house the overnighters presents the challenge of having Pastor Reinke devote more time to this cause than be a greater presence as a loving father and husband.
When a reporter divulges a story that could potentially compromise Reinke’s ministry, it becomes a hot potato issue as it is the type of crime that is easy to be twisted and misconstrued by the general public. But laws are laws and all the work that Reinke has done is a subject of scrutiny. People spend their entire lives building up a reputation and image, but one little misstep and it all comes tumbling down.
Good intentions are well and good, but the practicality of the overnighters program was a hurdle that even the strongest man of faith couldn’t overcome. A city ordinance is unavoidable but that’s not the end of the story!
Jesse Moss shot all the footage himself, minus a few inserts from news outlets. The Blu-ray presents excellent detail in the video transfer; the only limitations are those sequences shot in natural light where glares are unavoidable. The Overnighters disc carries a 5.1 soundtrack encoded in lossless DTS-HD MA. The center speaker is the primary, per usual with most documentaries. However, T. Griffin’s score provides a nice ambiance in the surrounds.
Drafthouse Films has put a few extras that help to heighten the overall impact of Jesse Moss’s documentary. The first is a joint commentary with Moss and Jay Reinke. The conversation is dominated by Reinke who still has a lot to say about the program. Moss pitches in with how he was able to blend into the background and camp out in the Concordia Lutheran Church for a year and a half.
The Interview Update with Jay Reinke is twenty-four minutes and takes place six months after the concluding events of the film. Here, Reinke tells us new developments in Williston and his own life.
The disc also includes five deleted scenes totaling fifteen minutes. One of the deletions is an extended take of Reinke walking the parking lot visiting with some of overnighters. It’s easy to see why the scene was trimmed, but Moss’s judicious cutting gives us a glimpse of Reinke as a man of faith who also looks after his own self interests.
Rounding out the supplemental package are the film’s theatrical trailer, trailers for other Drafthouse Films documentary releases (20,000 Days on Earth, The Act of Killing, and The Dog), plus a booklet containing a two-page “Director’s Statement” by Moss, a series of brilliant photographs of some of the overnighters by photographer Drew Ludwig, a picture of Concordia Lutheran, plus a rundown of film and disc credits.
The Overnighters has been compared to John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath and the comparisons are warranted. Of all the stories about the economic collapse, Jesse Moss’s doc provides an interesting sociological portrait of a time where part of America’s economy is bustling away, while another is stagnating. The film also shows the obstacles that arise with charity and how it can be disastrous with its proliferation. This film so open for discussion that you could take the religion out of it and have it still be a compelling topic.
Drafthouse Films presents The Overnighters. Directed by: Jesse Moss. Featuring: Pastor Jay Reinke. Rated: Not Rated. Released: February 3, 2015.
Tags: Drafthouse Films, The Overnighters