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Northern Exposure: The Story Behind ‘The Overnighters’

How filmmaker Jesse Moss followed migrant workers to North Dakota and came back with an award-winning doc

Overnighters'

'Overnighters'

Courtesy Drafthouse Films

When unemployment spiked during the recent fiscal crisis, itinerant workers began flooding into places like Williston, North Dakota, looking for jobs in the state’s booming oil industry. Documentary filmmaker Jesse Moss followed, drawn by the news reports of massive housing shortages, which had even some of the gainfully employed living in their cars, or paying thousands of dollars a month for a run-down apartment. “What I felt was missing from any storytelling about the boom was the longitudinal view,” Moss says. ” I knew at the time that (this story) was just going to vanish, with no trace, no record. It’s not the kind of history that gets written about.”

So Moss lived off-and-on in Williston for 16 months, talking to average folks and business owners, looking for something that what bring the situation in this small town — in effect, a microcosmic version of what the country was experiencing — into focus. While he was searching for a way into the bigger-picture storyline, he started spending a lot of that time at Concordia Lutheran Church; he soon got to know Pastor Jay Reinke, a man who’d opened up his home and church to these workers in need of a place to stay. The more Moss followed the charismatic Reinke around, however, the more the director noticed that the antagonism in the community once certain revelations about the men staying at the church came to light. The result is The Overnighters, his documentary on the conflict between wary locals and wandering laborers that won a Special Jury Prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. It’s a profound exploration of charity, community and faith — both the holy man’s and the filmmaker’s.

Moss captured multiple uncomfortable conversations that Reinke had with his neighbors and his congregation about how long he was going to keep encouraging these rough-looking men — many of whom had criminal records — to live side-by-side with Williston’s church-going middle-class families. “(As a non-Christian), I was interested in this debate in the church about what it means to lead a Christian life. What does it mean to love thy neighbor? What do you give up when you help someone in need?”

For his part, Reinke says that he initially thought of Moss and his camera as no different from the dozens of other news crews that were streaming into Williston every day from around the world. “What was different was that he came back, numerous times. And Jesse was unusual in that I never thought to engage him (theologically) in the way I would other reporters. I didn’t have the ‘So what are you living for?’ conversation.” Reinke only started to get nervous when Moss started calling The Overnighters a “film” and not a documentary. “That word ‘film’ kind of scared me.”

He’s a good guy who makes insanely bad life decisions. like letting rapists sleep in his basement.

“Jay’s concern was that the personal stuff would overwhelm the message,” Moss explains. And indeed, there was a lot of debate at Sundance regarding whether Moss had gone too far in showing Reinke, who had some serious issues of his own, at his most vulnerable. The documentarian admits that people have been “rightly concerned” about his journalistic ethics. “There were some very raw moments in the film where I questioned the presence of the camera, and my presence. Nobody ever asked me to turn the camera off. If somebody asks me to do that, I respect that request. What was important (for me) was to go away and think about those moments and what they represent, in the film and in the lives of these people. Particularly for Jay, who had the most to lose.”

“I’ve been sort of challenged to ask myself, ‘What am I doing to make a difference here?'” Reinke says. The answer: He’s still offering itinerant workers a place to stay in his house, to his neighbors’ chagrin. And since the film’s success on the festival circuit, the pastor has suffered through what he calls “some really, really ugly press” — largely related to the arrest of one of the “overnighters,” Keith Graves, on charges of sexual assault and human trafficking. Tyler Bell, a reporter for The Williston Herald, has been covering the community blowback closely for the last three months or so, describing Reinke as “a pariah” in Williston. “I think maybe, deep down, he’s a good guy,” Bell says, “who makes insanely bad life decisions. Like letting rapists sleep in his basement.” Moss adds: “He’s not a martyr or a saint. He’s a human being.”

As for Williston, Bell describes the homelessness situation as somewhat “improved,” though “there’s trailers parked out in front of the Herald every night. The boom’s coming to a crawl. Getting jobs up here isn’t so easy.” Moss is hoping that the release of the movie, which begins on October 10th in New York City and will open in the next few weeks around the county (with a portion of the box office receipts going to local affordable housing charities), will help draw attention to what’s going on there. The more people get to see the film, the more conversations will be sparked about what a small town does when sudden prosperity becomes a local emergency.

As for Moss, the overwhelmingly positive reception so far has been a satisfying end to this journey, one which began with him showing up in North Dakota much like those oil-workers, broke, hopeful and in search of something. Still, he’s apt to balk at any comparisons to his initial plight and the struggle his subjects continue to go through. “I’m very careful not to describe myself as an overnighter,” Moss says. “I was searching for something, certainly. But they had a lot more at stake than I did. They still do.”

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