Compassion, religion, and secrets in a North Dakota boom town.
For his most recent feature film The Overnighters, director Jesse Moss sought out a man named Jay Reinke—a pastor for twenty years of a small Lutheran church in Williston, North Dakota—after reading one of Reinke’s clergy columns in the local Williston newspaper. The small town experienced a deluge of humanity that began when people from all over the US came by the tens of thousands looking for work after hydraulic fracking in the region unlocked a vast oil field in a nearby shale in 2006. But Williston and its environs could not begin to handle this massive influx. To make things worse, many of the new arrivals were emotionally and psychologically damaged by unending years of grinding poverty, unemployment, sickness and addiction—and had nowhere else to turn.
Pastor Reinke decided to open his church to men who had come on their own, some leaving families back home when they left to search for work. Many could not find a place to sleep when they arrived, so, without anyone’s explicit permission, Reinke started using the interior of the building as a dorm. He also allowed men to sleep in their cars in the parking lot of the church, beginning a program called Overnighters. He became a friend, counselor and helpmate to thousands of them.
Moss, thinking Jay might develop into a key character in a film that was to center around the story of the oil boom in North Dakota and its various environmental and human-scale fallouts, ended up making a heartrending, dramatic and, at times, uncomfortably intimate portrait of one man in spiritual crisis. By the film’s end, this crisis reveals what at first appears to be a completely shocking secret about Reinke's past. But the sensitivity of the filmmaker, along with the meticulous dramaturgical and emotional build-up of the story, turns a potentially morally questionable revelation into a moment that beautifully illustrates a ferociously guarded dissociation of the self cracking wide open under unsustainable duress.
The last time I met with Jesse was back in 2008 in New York when I interviewed him and co-director, Tony Gerber, for their remarkable film Full Battle Rattle, a documentary that also shook me up but for very different reasons. Needless to say, Moss is a fearless director, who does not shy away from encountering his own inner demons as he’s documenting those of his subjects.
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