Chasing the American dream, thousands of workers flock to a North Dakota town where the oil business is booming. But instead of well-paying jobs, many find slim work prospects and a severe housing shortage. Pastor Jay Reinke converts his church into a makeshift dorm and counseling center, allowing hundreds of men, some with checkered pasts, to stay there despite the congregation's objections and neighbors' fears. The men become known as "overnighters," and community opposition to their presence soon reaches a boiling point.
Filmmaker Jesse Moss unveils the human consequences of the oil boom in the electrifying documentary The Overnighters. The film was shortlisted for a 2015 Academy Award® nomination and won a Special Jury Award for Intuitive Filmmaking: Documentary at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival.
In Williston, N.D., the oil business is booming, nearly tripling the small town's population in the past 10 years. Unemployment is close to zero and starting pay in the oil fields can easily exceed $100,000 annually. In search of a better life or a quick dollar, thousands of men and women go to the region looking for work, and they often arrive with little more than the clothes on their backs or the cars they are driving.
Pastor Jay Reinke in The Overnighters. Photo: Jesse Moss
As a result, housing in Williston has become scarce and expensive, leaving even those who have found employment without places to live. These newcomers arrive at Concordia Lutheran Church every day seeking help, which prompts the church's pastor, Jay Reinke, to open its doors and allow the overnighters to stay for a night, a week or sometimes even longer. They sleep on the floor, in the pews and in their cars in the church parking lot. On some nights, as many as 60 people call the church home, which creates a vibrant but unruly ad-hoc community.
Members of Reinke's congregation and the church's neighbors voice their concerns about the overnighters, while the recent murder of a local schoolteacher by out-of-towners has sown apprehension and distrust in Williston. Coverage in the local newspaper, the Williston Herald of violent crime in the area contributes to the growing sense of unease. Yet Reinke remains determined to unite a divided community. "The last thing we need to do is serve our fear," he says.
As Reinke fights for these men and women against growing opposition, he is drawn into the whirlpool of their troubled lives. Some of them have criminal records, while others carry heavy emotional and psychological burdens.
Concerned that the presence of a registered sex offender named Keith in the church parking lot may invite the newspaper's scrutiny and further erode support for the overnighters program, the pastor makes a decision that some would call humane but many would call reckless: He invites Keith to live in his own home, with his own family.
A disgruntled former overnighter tips off the newspaper, and things begin to spiral out of control. Although Reinke fights to defend the program, the crisis grows.
Facing an unyielding flood of migrants and opposition in seemingly every corner, the pastor refuses to concede. But even he begins to question his own judgment. The situation has already taken a huge toll on Reinke's family, and in an emotionally wrenching scene inside a local coffee shop, he is forced to confess a secret to his wife, Andrea. The revelation, which sheds new light on his commitment to helping broken men and fighting for an inclusive community, will have shattering consequences for Reinke, his family and the overnighters.
The Overnighters illustrates the tension between the moral imperative to "love thy neighbor" and the reality that one small, conservative community faces when confronted by a mighty river of desperate, job-seeking strangers. A modern-day Grapes of Wrath, it tells an unforgettable story about the promise of redemption and the limits of compassion.
"The themes of re-invention and self-invention in American life have long interested me and inspired my film work," says filmmaker Jesse Moss. "The lure of the boomtown and its powerful place in the American imagination stem from its seductive promise of redemption and fortune for the brave and the desperate. It is this theme -- played out in stark, raw terms in North Dakota and viewed through the prism of Pastor's Jay's church--that drew me to this story.
"When I arrived at the church, there were about 50 people sleeping there. I met tradesmen from Southern and Western states hard hit by the housing bust, African immigrants, kids from rural communities with no employment prospects, broken men, ex-cons and guys with Ph.D.'s. Pastor Jay told me, 'The world has arrived on my doorstep.' For the first six months of production, I slept there, among the men. Perhaps the forces that drew me to Williston -- search for opportunity, work and meaning in my life -- were not far different from those that compelled the men I met.
"It was an intensely emotional experience. I had a gun pulled on me in Wheelock and was attacked by a broomstick-wielding woman. I cried with Pastor Jay--several times. And I stumbled into scenes of sublime beauty. I was lucky to be present for some extraordinary and intimate moments in the lives of these men. I've done my best to return the trust they offered me by making a compassionate, truthful and, I hope, lasting film."