With The Overnighters, filmmaker Jesse Moss takes us to Williston, North Dakota -- a small town overwhelmed by an influx of migrant workers after fracking uncovers a wealth of oil beneath the town's surface. With no infrastructure to support them, the workers are left homeless in the streets until Pastor Jay Reinke enters the picture with his “Overnighters” program. Pastor Jay embodies the Christian ethic, putting his entire life on the line to help his fellow man by providing them shelter in his home and church, even without the support of his congregation.
On the surface The Overnighters confronts a popular topical issue -- the struggles of the working class in post-recession America -- but at heart it’s so much more. Moss spent a year and a half getting to know Pastor Jay and the migrant men of Williston, watching the story unfold naturally and filming it all along the way. What emerged is a stunning, complicated film full of twists and turns that explores the very notions of generosity, community and, above all, the complexity of man.
Q: As a documentarian searching for your next film, what do you look for in the stories you want to tell and what inspired you about Williston?
M: I've found myself telling very character-driven, observational vérité documentaries. They've mostly focused on men who are deeply conflicted. It's hard for me to account in rational terms why I found my way to those stories -- maybe I'm just drawn to them. I can say that I didn't set out to make a film about Pastor Jay. The film started with the question of what was happening in North Dakota and this extraordinary migration of men and women looking for work. I was struck by how this seemed to echo these stories that played out in American history and the boomtowns that had boomed and busted over the last two hundred years. So much of those stories are cloaked in mythology and removed by history. I wondered what a modern day boomtown looked like and felt like.
Q: Was there a point during filming that you realized Jay was becoming the heart of the story or did that emerge in the editing room?
M: I think it emerged in production, because I was filming quite a number of other people, people in The Overnighters program, but also people in the wider community. I actually struggled with the idea that this film was becoming more and more about Jay. This isn't really what I thought I would end up making and yet I was drawn to him and to what's happening -- that this guy has stood up for these people and helped them. On the surface that’s not about oil boom and a boomtown. I kind of had to wrestle with that. I know why I ended up there, because it is this prism, because Jay's in the middle of these forces, trying to help balance all these interests. It's a tremendously dramatic story -- a fulcrum.
Q: You shot this vérité style as a one-man crew while the events were happening, which allows a lot of intimacy for the audience. What was your experience shooting the film that way?
M: It was very intimate. It was very powerful emotionally -- not only to witness what was happening in the lives of these men, and Jay's own life, but to get to know these people. I wasn't a passive participant. Jay became a friend and a confidant, and I became his confidant in a way. I got to know these men very well. I was working by myself and I didn't have a place to stay. I asked Jay if I could sleep in the church because, like people arriving in Williston, I couldn't find a hotel. They're all booked by oil companies. I think that proximity really does account for the intimacy of the film. The camera provides some kind of distancing and emotional protection from that, but I found that with this film those barriers were permeable. People ask you for help, they ask you for advice, and I responded emotionally to what I was experiencing. Sometimes it was very hard, and it was hard to know what to do as a filmmaker.
Q: Along those lines, there are very private and emotionally brutal moments in the film. When you have that kind of intimacy with your subjects is there any debate about what should be included or left out?
M: Some things just happened in front of the camera in unexpected and shocking ways. You film them and then you spend time unpacking them, talking about what happened with your subjects, and exploring what they mean in your film when you get to the edit room. I felt very fundamentally that I wanted to tell a story about what these people were going through. This wasn't a film where I went in with a big political frame. You're constantly searching for the boundaries of what is true to the story and how to honor your relationships with the people who have trusted you with capturing these moments. There's no yardstick. It's a film in large part about Jay, and some of those intimate scenes help to understand the risks he's taking and why he takes those risks as a human being.My yardstick in making this kind of film is that at the end of the day will my subjects stand behind the film with me even if it's hard and painful? And Jay has.
Q: The film ends in a place that feels natural, but also leaves a lot of unanswered questions, especially given the final reveal. This is obviously an ongoing story, so how did you choose that cutoff point?
A: When I saw where Jay found himself and when I came to understand that Jay had become an Overnighter himself in a way, even though there was a whole other unfolding story ahead of him in his life, that seemed like the place to leave him. That uncertain future gave a symmetry to the story that seemed both right and unresolved. I did know that people would have questions about Jay and his journey in life, but in some ways I don't think there will ever be resolution, so that seemed as good a moment as any to leave him in his story.
Q: This is very much an American story about frontierism and the American Dream, which doesn't work out all that well for the guys in THE OVERNIGHTERS. Do you think we're living in a post-American Dream era?
M: I think that journey has never been easy, not just the journey there, but the journey to survive. I don’t think it’s all a mirage. People come to a boomtown looking for a second chance, redemption and reinvention. They want to leave their mistakes. They start over again, and that age-old American narrative is very romantic and seductive, the implicit promise of the boomtown. But the reality is you can't leave your mistakes, or your pathology, or your burdens, or your criminal records behind you. Those things follow you. I didn't set out to follow people who wouldn't succeed. And Jay really needed to believe that the program was giving people an opportunity to succeed. Just because the people in the film have such a hard time doesn't mean that some people didn't really make it. Over a thousand people slept in that church and some of them did make it. Missing in the conversation about all of it was a sense of what people really go through to make it and how hard it really is.
Q: You also address the Christian ethic and the moment "love thy neighbor" confronts the fear of strangers.
A: I came to this story as someone who was not raised in the church and I knew that Jay's actions were really a profound expression of his faith lived -- to love these people who are hard to love and despite the cost that he bears for doing that. I saw that choice, which is profoundly Christian, what it means to really love thy neighbor, but I came to it not as a Christian and I found it a very human question, regardless of faith or no faith. It's just a profound moral question of helping people who have less than you. What are our obligations to those people? What do we give up and what do we gain when we help them? I think it's a central question that we confront as a country because of social inequality that seems to increase daily and the disparities of wealth. To me that's a very universal question.