I find the idea that we write alone laughable, even egotistical. Poetry is a palimpsest that has been endlessly rewritten—it’s a social space we share with others.
Compassion, religion, and secrets in a North Dakota boom town.
The Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum
congratulates BOMB Gala honorees
James Keith Brown
and Eric G. Diefenbach
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.
Pamela Cohn The heart and soul of this piece is the relationship between you and Jay Reinke. His story acts as a prism or filter through which we learn about the larger story of what’s happening in North Dakota socially, economically, and spiritually. You become this pastor’s confessor—he placed unyielding trust in you.
Jesse Moss This relationship was, indeed, everything. You’ve seen my first feature doc called Speedo. For me, in part, this project was an attempt to get back to that kind of freedom of making a film that way, that closeness, seeing whether I could work that way again and make anything of value, whether that was still a valid form of storytelling in contemporary documentary.
After reading the entry in his regular clergy column in the town’s newspaper, the Williston Herald, where he called on the community to welcome these “immigrants,” I left Jay a phone message. He called me back and was very open on the phone and I took his openness as an invitation to go there. The church was the first place I went when I arrived and I had brought my camera with me. He welcomed me in the same way he welcomed these people coming to find a place to sleep. There wasn’t a lot of negotiation or discussion but I told him that I was very interested in what people were experiencing there, coming to find work, to find opportunity. With his permission, I started filming the very first day I got there.
What I also understood really early on from what Jay told me was that this was an enormous risk for him, personally and professionally. Some of the members of the congregation were giving tentative support, but most were giving him a hard time. Like my subjects in Speedoand in Full Battle Rattle, I responded to his openness to document this. Certain people invite the camera in for whatever their sets of reasons are. There was also this electrifying connection between Jay and these men as he talked to them, interviewed them, wanting to know why they were there, where they were from, sizing them up. Those interactions provided a really insightful glimpse into the realities of this bigger story of the North Dakota boom. The original conception of the project was to really understand the ground level, lived experience of these people trying to survive. Was the perceived salvation of the North Dakota oil boom a reality, or a mirage?
The program had been running for a few months at that point and I think he recognized that there was something meaningful happening in his church and he wanted a witness to that. All he had at that point was antagonism, frankly. And there I was saying that I thought it was an extraordinary story. He found some validation in my witnessing. You can certainly recognize that there is vanity there, which he would freely admit to and he struggled with that. I liked that about him, his willingness to be honest with me about his own vanity and his own motives.
Personally, I was struggling with the fact that he was a pastor and it was a story set within a church. It wasn’t where I expected to find myself and it clashed with what I imagined a film about the North Dakota oil boom should be. I thought it should be portrayals of roughnecks with hardhats on a drilling rig and here I was in this Lutheran church. I didn’t grow up in the church and I’m not Christian and it made me extremely wary because it wasn’t a world I understood. But that also interested me, that and the fact that I could relate to this man immediately. He drew strength from my witness, especially as an outsider. But I wasn’t an outsider like most of the overnighters were. He and I could talk together in a different way and I think that’s what you recognized and referred to, this relationship where I became, in a way, a kind of pastor to him, a confessor, a confidant. We would film and then go to his office to talk. The relationship really emerged out of those times. He felt under the gun and burdened with feeling so much antagonism. He found strength in my presence because I always returned and kept filming.
PC Quite a few of the men express discomfort at the fact that a church is turning out to be their one and only refuge, and it’s reiterated throughout the film that this is where “sinners” go, this is where they are welcome. There is also the reiteration of this idea of love versus fear, the imperative to overcome our fears in order to love.
JM In a really interesting microcosmic way, what was playing out in the church was the bigger story of the way people were drawn to North Dakota to reinvent themselves. It wasn’t just about economic opportunity but a kind of salvation, redemption, a second chance. That narrative has always interested me, the ways in which people strive to reinvent themselves, the distance between the reinvented self and the self one would like to leave behind and measuring that distance or the possibility of that journey. That’s a narrative with strong echoes in our American history and mythology. I found that very real and palpable in this story and in that church. Jay had decided to live his faith and the Christian ethic in this remarkable way, to take in these people who are very hard to love.
I also immediately related to him on a moral level. This wasn’t strictly a Christian act or a charitable one to “love his neighbor” but a moral choice to help people in need—but at what cost? That choice is extraordinarily powerful. The Christian struggle is very interesting and you see that within the congregational debate. I remember him saying to me that if they took up a collection in this church to help people in Africa or some other community that desperately needed it, there would be no question. But when there was that need in their backyard and on their front doorstep, it was a different story. It’s a proposition with no easy answer. What Jay was doing was radically and fundamentally impacting his own congregation and the question of the purpose of the congregation. Is it to provide community for one another and their own relationships to God and their faith, or is it to serve in the way of following the teachings of Jesus? I think you can make a strong argument both ways. The truth, of course, lies somewhere in that complicated gray space where Jay was trying to live.
PC You use this very specific cinematic language to toggle back and forth between this microcosmic space of the church and the bigger story about the North Dakota boom in what you capture in these interstitial frames of the landscape and the people housed within it. These resonances build out of three very specific locations—the church, Jay and his wife Andrea’s home—and then this supermarket, of all places. That Economart, a public commercial space, is the stage for some pretty cataclysmic scenes.
JM I haven’t talked a lot about that with people, the oddity of this neutral space. The fact is, in this small town, there are not many spaces like that, this café in front of this knockoff Walmart. This was the place where these lonely men would come and sit by themselves. It was also the place where Jay went to be “alone” and it wasn’t an accident that these very momentous and difficult conversations take place there.
PC There is the scene of the argument that Jay and Keith Graves have where Jay is very angry with Keith for lying by omission, as he calls it. This foregrounds Jay’s own withholding, his own self-loathing about the ways in which he is living a lie, in part. Every moment of every day, both men hope like hell that they won’t be exposed, but know full well that it’s inevitable. Can you talk a bit about filming with Keith, and the agreement you had with him in terms of his willingness to be filmed?
JM Very early on Jay laid it out for me, the story of this guy. One day, he called me and said the newspaper had visited him at the church. He had refused to speak to them. They had found out that there was a registered sex offender living in Jay’s house. Jay did do background checks on all of these men who showed up and we show this in the film. But they often just get partial records and sometimes, of course, people lie. But Keith had registered with North Dakota law enforcement when he came there because it is a requirement, by law, that he do so wherever he goes. The newspaper had come to ask about that. Jay knew some of the men had criminal records but I never saw him turn anybody away because of that.
However, he did not know that Keith was a registered sex offender. When he was informed by the paper and recognized that this was going to be something made public, he was faced with that test, that choice. This was six months into production and pressure was really mounting on Jay. The congregation’s rebellion about the Overnighter program was fomenting and neighbors were up in arms. People’s discomfort and fear at having all these strangers around had also been intensified by the news of the brutal murder of a local schoolteacher. Things were precarious. He told me he didn’t know what to do.
Keith had a good job as a truck driver and was one of the few overnighters who attended church services and was even tithing part of his salary—a model citizen to Jay in many ways. Does he cast him out and leave him with no place to stay? When he told me he was going to invite Keith to live with him and his family, I was on the next flight to North Dakota. I met Keith in the parking lot the next day. I wasn’t sure he’d agree to be in the film but he was very open. After I talked to him in the parking lot, Jay took him home to eat tuna sandwiches with his family. That same night, Jay also has this conversation with Alan—Jay’s assistant for the program and an overnighter himself—in which he tells him that they cannot tell the church leaders about the fact that Keith was living with Jay and his family.
As admirable and consistent with his faith and his principles as these actions were, there was something undeniably reckless in the decision to do that, inviting a registered sex offender to live right next to his teenaged daughters—and then to withhold information from the church authorities. You don’t invite this many people into your church unless you’re willing to cross some boundaries, but Jay doesn’t play by normal rules and that’s one of the things that is extraordinary about him, along with this degree of reckless disregard that I recognized when he told me that he could lose his job.
But there was something else there—were these acts of self-destruction, or was there something deeper? Why was he risking so much? For me, that was the unfolding mystery of Jay that kept me coming back. As much as I responded to the story, it was the mystery of the man, something in his heart and something that I couldn’t understand or fathom, something that explained his super-human dedication and his willingness to risk so much. He let me know that there was something within him—even though I didn’t know what it was at the time—that accounted for his compassion and identification with those men. He even said that there were “skeletons in his closet.”
As close as we became, there was a kind of no-fly zone in our relationship. In turn, he never preached to me and he respected that I was from outside his community. He could have so easily preached at me or tried to recruit me into the church. He was very respectful and in turn, there were places where I felt I shouldn’t push. That intuitive understanding in our relationship is something that exists in every close relationship—they revolve around both what is stated and what is not.
PC This leads me to think about his wife, Andrea, this idea of unspoken or unuttered things between two people in an intimate relationship, or the complicit acknowledgment of something understood but never spoken about.
JM Well, that’s what Keith is representing in another form. He is the man with the most profound stigma someone could have in society. Jay’s position is very conflicted. On the one hand, he hides the guy away in his basement and, as you recognize in their later conversation at Economart, Jay says to him that he needs him to be fully open and honest, to not hide. Keith is some kind of inversion of how Jay sees himself.
The film was shot and is told quite chronologically. The end—the reveal—happened at the end of shooting, when the Overnighter program closed. Jay looks back and reflects on these conversations he had had with these men and this allowed me to understand so much more about him and the journey he was on. There is the realization that he is talking to himself when he talks to Keith.
PC I want to quote something to you that you said back in 2008 when we talked about Full Battle Rattle. I was re-reading the transcript from that interview and something you said then jumped out at me: You said, “The qualities that would cause it to be embraced if it were fiction, are qualities that work against it in certain documentary spaces.” That’s really relevant to what you’re talking about now.
JM I still do feel that way. Maybe part of my ongoing work is to find in nonfiction the complexities you find in fiction, in novels. Sometimes it’s hard to come by in nonfiction when a presentation of some binary truth seems to be more desirable. I struggled with the fact that this story as it unfolded began to present so many complicated questions and vectors—Jay’s acts of faith, economic opportunity, the position of sex offenders in our society. It was too much and becoming unwieldy in its complexities and I was beginning to struggle with how to contain all of the men, all of these questions, as well as leave an audience with some things that would not be resolved.
And yet, those are the very qualities that I look for when I watch a film or read a novel. Ultimately, I’ve found that it is those qualities that have been embraced and valued now that the film is in the world—the fact that some big questions are not resolved as Jay traverses this spiritual crisis, the rightness or wrongness of his actions. I felt encouraged by the response of both audiences and critics to the unwieldiness of the film in that respect. So I’m not going to sit here and indict the whole field of nonfiction when in fact, clearly, there’s an audience for these complexities, even though it’s seemingly the minority.
A lot of viewers have been convinced that there must have been some chicanery here to achieve all these twists and turns, because the intimacy you see on screen, you might not normally see in documentary.
PC You mentioned that the chronology of events is, more or less, what we see in the finished film, regarding Jay’s confession and when you knew about that. I remember talking to Jeff Malmberg about his extraordinary film Marwencol. He told me that he knew of something about his protagonist Mark Hogancamp very early on, but decided to withhold from viewers until almost the end of the film. One of the very first things Mark told him about was his secret history as a cross-dresser. And the film does not totally resolve the ambivalence about the fact that this might have been the reason he almost got beaten to death and lost his memory.
But in the edit, the decision was made to have the scene where he shows Jeff his closet of women’s shoes towards the end of the film. Jeff explained that he chose to do that because he wanted audiences to perceive Mark as the heroic person he is and that if viewers knew about this, that somehow he was a bit afraid that that fact would be in the way of how Mark is regarded.
JM It’s true that Jay’s confession did, indeed, come at the very end of shooting, and that I did not know that about him until then. Although as I mentioned before, I did intuit that there was something going on.
PC Can you talk about your decision then to put it in the film at all.
JM I’ll tell you what happened: I arrived to film the closing of the Overnighter program at the church. It’s that very moving scene where Jay is speaking to the men sitting in the pews, all of them essentially becoming his congregation. Then they say goodbye and hug and he’s just inconsolable, bereft. That was the weekend the Williston city council had compelled the program to close due to pressure from the community. When I met Jay in the parking lot, he told me that he had something to tell me and that it could not be in the film. He said that he was about to lose his job and that wasn’t a surprise because at the beginning of filming a year and a half earlier, we all knew that that was a possibility. When I asked him why, he sighed heavily and said it was hard to talk about. We took a four-hour drive to Montana so he could get his hair cut and it was then that he told me that he had had a relationship with a man and that this man was threatening to blackmail him. For whatever reason, that man had decided to inform Jay’s superiors and he was going to be asked to resign his pastorship.
I will say that I definitely considered that possibility early on when Jay told me that there was something in his heart he was grappling with, and that it helped him identify with these people who felt shame and stigma, and who were never welcomed into the community to which they had come. He felt himself to be broken—but he was married, he had a family, and a responsible position in the community. This Lutheran denomination is intolerant of homosexuality and so he carried this burden, this sense of brokenness that was profoundly deep and difficult. This was fundamental to what this story is about, this story of one man’s abiding compassion and his actions. These actions were not strictly theological. There was a greater, deeply personal dimension to them.
From that point, there was a process to determine what could be shot and how it could be incorporated into the film, and how Jay and his family’s concerns about that material could be sensitively addressed. It was extremely difficult, the hardest set of experiences I’ve had as a filmmaker in twenty years.
PC Jay’s confession to Andrea, again happens at the Economart. Your decision to film that was, for me and for many I’ve spoken with about the film, a disturbing and transgressive act. What happened there?
JM Jay did not intend to have that conversation with her in front of me in a public place. He intended to tell her in a private place without me present, since it was entirely inappropriate otherwise. I was with them when they went to get coffee at Economart on that last weekend and … life happened in the way life happens in so many scenes in this movie—in utterly unexpected ways.I think that day was meant to be a conversation to try and prepare her for when he would tell her in whatever way he was planning to tell her. But it got away from him and it ended up happening with me there.
I have a very simple rule: every time I shoot documentary, when asked to turn the camera off or put it down, I do. Now, once I put it down I might want to talk about why I can’t film a certain moment. But in that scene, neither of them asked me to do that, so I very unexpectedly found myself filming the most intimate moment I have ever filmed. These were also people I had come to know and to care deeply about. And yet, as a filmmaker in the process of telling a story, I had responsibilities there, too, to the journey that I was on with these people. I remember asking myself all kinds of questions as this was playing out before me, the main one being, What is the right way to relate to what’s happening in front of me? I had been through some difficult and harrowing moments in that film, right down to having a rifle pulled on me, and I still kept filming as this armed woman was chasing Jay and me off her property.
The hard part was not the filming of that scene with Jay and Andrea. It was what to do next and how to continue to move forward with him and his family in a compassionate way. This man, for whom I have such deep respect, also made a public confession. The confession he makes in the film is also the confession he offers his congregation. That event I definitely wasn’t allowed to film; the congregation would not allow it. After that, he packed his office, left the church, and what was done was done. It all happened rather quickly. I have been accused of withholding information for dramatic effect but it’s just not true. The audience experiences the chain of events the same way I did. To your point about Jeff’s film, how does it change the story if we had known this about Jay early on in the story?
PC It takes us back to that question of whether it works for or against the narrative of a nonfiction film. In the prologue, Jay talks about the split between his private self and his public self and having these deeply embedded secrets. The fact that he chose to be a clergyman instead of a real-estate agent or an accountant or whatever—he’s a capable, bright, engaged human being. He could have done so many other things with his life but he chose this. There is also the element of that piece of scripture about the shepherd laying down his life for his sheep, and the mystery of how some are moved to take a position in society and become a sort of conduit for universal pain.
JM I’m a bit wary of too much psychoanalysis, but I have had to ask myself hard questions. Jay’s decision to embrace the overnighters and the reckless act of doing that can be looked at as the actions of someone who fundamentally needed to change his life. He crossed a line and never looked back and it was an act of self-destruction as well as an act of extraordinary compassion and charity. I think his decision to welcome me into his life as he did can be viewed in a similar way, as a desire to have a witness. Whether he acknowledges this or not, the presence of the camera was an agent for him. At that moment in the Economart he needed to tell his wife what he needed to tell her. Neither of them was oblivious to the camera, and it’s definitely not an isolated incident, this recognition of the camera and my presence, and the function that it served.
Since then, I’ve been busy processing all this, my role as witness, but also as an agent to help him find what he was seeking. You’ve seen this in some of the films we’ve talked about in the last couple of years, but it’s why I’ve really moved away from this notion that fly-on-the-wall filmmaking exists at all. The camera has worked so much as a tool for confession, most strongly in work like Josh Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing. It’s becoming a bit easier and very helpful for me to talk about, but it also moves away from the ways we were taught to think about documentary. There is much more nuance in the understanding of how these relationships work and it does involve a certain amount of parsing of motive and psychology. That’s sometimes hard to do with any sense of real clarity. So much is written into the frame. Whether the audience acknowledges that consciously or not, they read it and they recognize it, that complexity.
PC Like your other films, and like most nonfiction films of this caliber, the edit takes a really long time. You mentioned the chronological linearity of the shoot, but there is a prologue and epilogue that are distinctly not chronological.
JM I had to let a lot of material go, but a lot fell away on its own, material that existed before I allowed myself to surrender to Jay’s story. Our first full rough cut held to a rigorous observational method. But the experience of filming this and being there was so intensely emotional. What I found was that when I had this pure vérité cut, it was emotionless. It did not, in fact, reflect what I wanted expressed in the film at all.
So much of that got ripped away and we took another look to see what was still standing up on screen. From there we could work more with the greater understanding we had of Jay and let people in more through the use of voiceover, interviews, the confessional conversations that Jay and I had in his office where he talks about his internal struggles. In terms of all the other narratives, it was also a huge challenge to find the right rhythm between cutting away to focus on a handful of these men and the back and forth of these individual story lines. But they’re the people Jay’s investing in so, of course, they had to be there to add dimension to so much of what this film is about in a larger context.
Then there was the challenge of dealing with the ending because it fundamentally changed the film. There’s that moment with Todd we had to revisit, when Jay tells this lost soul looking for salvation that they are more alike than different. It was about recognizing those moments and letting them land where they needed to be. The most radical gesture ended up being the prologue to the film, when Jay sits and tells us about the divide between his public and private selves, and that there is going to be a lot of pain.
I fought strongly to include the prologue because it functions as a key story frame. It’s such a radical turn for many people, Jay’s secret, coming like a sledgehammer. I felt, somehow, that there should be this attempt to try to prepare people by exposing how complex his predicament and his struggle were as early on as we could. So much credit is due to my editor, Jeff Gilbert. I got really, really useful feedback from Jeff which informed some of the creative choices I was making in the field: where to focus, specific questions to ask. That dialogue between the edit room and the field was so helpful.
There is not just one principal antagonist in this story, which you might have if you were writing a screenplay where there is the nemesis and the hero. There was the congregation, Jay’s neighbors, the city of Williston, and no one of those entities was significantly dominant enough to be the main antagonistic element. Collectively, they became what he was up against, at least externally.
That place broke my heart. If a viewer can’t feel anything in this film at all, it means I’ve failed on a really basic level. Believe me, I am not one to let my guard down that easily, but that place and those people and what was happening there really short-circuited my defenses. I’m not a religious person but I really felt like there was something really happening in this church that provided some kind of hallowed ground. But that couldn’t last forever and no one would ever know what had gone on there. I was in Williston in December to show the film and when I drove by the church, you could just have no idea how much humanity and how much life had been contained in that small space. Also, there is solace for Jay that his story is there. He even asked me at one point if it had been a dream, if it had all really happened. What’s most important is that it’s so meaningful to him that it is there.
For more on The Overnighters, including information on upcoming screenings, visit filmmaker Jesse Moss’s website.
Pamela Cohn is a producer, writer, programmer, and documentary consultant currently based in Berlin.
I find the idea that we write alone laughable, even egotistical. Poetry is a palimpsest that has been endlessly rewritten—it’s a social space we share with others.