The brilliance of good documentary films happens when your eyes are opened or you learn something about this complex world we live in. With a film festival like Rencontres Internationales du Documentaire de Montréal you are afforded the opportunity to learn about a myriad of subjects like the life of actress Brandy Burre, free schools in the United States, confessions of prostitutes and addicts, and Juggalos – fans of the horrorcore hip hop band Insane Clown Posse. For lovers of information and learning this festival is like crack in that the more you watch the more you want to watch.
My first dose came in the form of the Sundance film The Overnighters by director Jesse Moss (Speedo). The small town of Williston, North Dakota is the setting of this story of chasing dreams, the economic troubles in the United States and a Lutheran pastor willing to risk everything to help his fellow man.
Recently North Dakota has become a destination of choice for unemployed workers in the United States. With unemployment being high jobs are scarce, so when oil companies began digging for oil in North Dakota and not only hiring workers, but paying them well people began to come to the state in droves. The small town of Williston was one of the places the unemployed began arriving at by the hundreds. For a small town it was overwhelming. Workers came from far and wide such as New York, Georgia, California, the Congo, Wisconsin, and Michigan. When the unemployed arrived and found the jobs not so easy to get and without the means to secure housing a homeless problem began cropping up. One man in Williston decided it was time to do something.
Pastor Reinke began taking men into the Concordia Lutheran Church to live plus allowing those with campers to park there overnight. Thus these people came to be known as the overnighters. The more he helped the more the people of Williston began to doubt what he was doing. Intolerance, which often crops up when “others” move in, began to grow. Community now seemed to be a foreign concept for residents of Williston. Even the pastor’s wife says that his growing involvement with these men has put strain on their family life.
After a while it seems like every crime or bad thing that happens in Williston is blamed on the overnighters. The overnighters sense the tension and only feel safe in the church. Members of the congregation feel the overnighters are not respectful and make a mess of church plus play with their cell phones during service. Wonder how long the pastor plans on supporting them.
Things come to a head when the Williston Herald gets hold of some damning information. A disgruntled former overnighter has to them with the information that several of the overnighters even one that Pastor Reinke has moved into his house are convicted sex offenders. They write a story with a list of the names of all the sex offenders in town. The public is understandably nervous. When that comes out Pastor Reinke is worried that it could mean the end of his ministry and will cause the congregation to question him.
Push comes to shove and the city tells Pastor Reinke he has 30 days to end the overnighters program. Needless to say he is very upset. What happens after he has to close the program comes as a complete shock to everyone…well, almost everyone.
Desperation, salvation, hope, and how we all fall short of perfection are the interwoven themes running through this poignant documentary filmed over the years 2012 and 2013. Many current issues like poverty, support systems for people who are suffering most, unemployment, intolerance, outright xenophobia, and the human and environmental costs of industrial development make up The Overnighters. We see firsthand how quickly bonds of friendship and brotherhood can be broken during trying times as these. Humans are flawed creatures. Even the pastor proves himself to be hugely human.
Because of the hard economic times residents of the United States are going through they have become a people of fear. They have started to fear outsiders or the “other” even if they are fellow Americans. That point is really hit home in this documentary. Even within a congregation of people who claim to be Christians they demonstrate that they do not love their brothers and will do anything to protect what they have.
Giving you a fly on the wall perspective about what went on with Pastor Reinke, the overnighters and the residents of Williston, Jesse Moss’s film attempts to give you the entire picture rather than come at the issue from one point of view or another. Thought-provoking and a well made picture.