Pastor gives refuge to oil workers in 'The Overnighters'

Feb 28, 2014

This story is part of True/False Conversations, a series of in-depth interviews with the filmmakers of this year’s True/False Festival.  Find the rest of them here or download the podcast on iTunes

The fracking boom in much of the U.S. has opened up a new path for people searching for work, of course, but also for redemption and reinvention.  In the film “The Overnighters,” filmmaker Jesse Moss travels to Williston, N.D., to tell the story of Lutheran Pastor Jay Reinke and the workers he houses in his church and home. Reinke invites newcomers to sleep in extra rooms at the church and to sleep in their cars in the parking lot while they look for jobs and more permanent housing. Some of the men even live in the pastor’s home with his family.

That doesn’t sit well with much of the xenophobic community that wants to shut down the pastor’s “Overnighters” program when some of his tenants’ criminal pasts come to light. The tension between the community and Reinke escalates when a rise in crime is attributed to the newcomers. With the film, Moss constructs a narrative paralleled among the men, the community and Reinke that suggests one’s identity is like a braid being woven through life: You can’t readily get rid of a strand without unraveling the whole rope.

I talked with Moss about how people as well as communities often are forced to reinvent themselves.

Tell me about how you got the idea for "The Overnighters."

I was fascinated with the idea that there was in 21st century America this frontier boom town up in Williston, ND. I had been reading about the oil boom up there and how this little community was out of control. I was reading the local newspaper – the Williston Herald – online and there was a clergy column that Pastor Jay had published in which he said let's not fear these newcomers, these men and women who were flooding into this community. Let's welcome them.

I knew that was an unusual sentiment in Williston. I reached out to Jay and he said you've just got to come and visit and see what's happening here. That was the start of the filming. The moment I set foot in his church, I knew there was something extraordinary happening there. These men were just incredibly desperate and his connection with them was really powerful. They had literally stepped off a train or bus that day with nothing in their pocket. They were looking for work. That environment was incredibly intense. 

How did you prepare yourself to go in to tell a story like this that's involved in an already contentious industry – fracking?

I had the sense that there was another story that wasn't being told about the oil boom in North Dakota. The story in the conventional, main-stream media was: easy jobs. To me, it was more the human, ground level experience for people who are trying to find opportunity and redemption in this boom town in this oil field that was suddenly the one place in America where you could get a living wage job. 

When I got there I found these men that were rough around the edges, ex-cons. There was a kind of electricity in the air in Williston and in that part of North Dakota that really felt out of control. It is out of control; you sense that the town was getting ripped apart. And that these forces were enormous. The forces of oil extraction and energy – that's a huge industry. It had moved in machinery and men by the thousands.

And these are little farming towns in North Dakota and they were just getting ripped apart and reborn themselves. It's so easy to go in there and fixate on the macro picture or talk about the environment, but I wanted to talk about what this transformation was delivering for these people and how it was changing the community.

What themes or messages do you hope the audience takes away from this film?

Jay would say that broken people need love. And I think that's his message and that's a powerful message for the film. For him, he puts that message into action by literally loving his neighbor. When your neighbor happens to be an ex-con from Spokane, will you love him just as much as the next guy?

I think that's message to me of the film that people will bring home with them. Broken people need love.

In the film, were you scared when that lady started waving her gun and counting down?

F--- yeah. Dude, I've never had a gun pulled on me and certainly not while I was filming. That's a strange moment. You really have to suspend any rational thought or judgment. Part of you wants to run like hell or put the camera down. Then part of you is like: Wait a minute. I'm here with my main character. He's getting the gun pulled on him. What's going to happen? Is he going to get shot dead in this flyspeck town Wheelock, N.D.? And if he does, I better be filming.