Hope and fear, tolerance and suspicion, open hearts and wrenching secrets — the human experience plays out in ways both predictable and unforeseen. In tomorrow night’s screening of “The Overnighters,” the final film in the SummerDocs series presented by the Hamptons International Film Festival and Guild Hall, an epic story is told through unemployed, often desperate men, and through the words and deeds of a man who struggles mightily to help them.
Jesse Moss, the director of “The Overnighters,” spent two years “embedded” in the small North Dakota town of Williston, where hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, has unlocked a vast oil field in the nearby Bakken shale. There he met and filmed the Rev. Jay Reinke, pastor of Concordia Lutheran Church, and many of the men, and some women, who traveled to the region with high hopes but discovered a sobering reality — enormous competition for work and a scarcity of affordable housing.
Dozens, sometimes scores, of job seekers slept at Concordia Lutheran every night while even more camped in cars and vans in the church’s parking lot. Tirelessly living his faith’s edict to love thy neighbor, Mr. Reinke’s drive to welcome and care for the hundreds of newcomers riled and sometimes infuriated residents of the community, including many members of his congregation. Tension mounted and the local government intervened as the pastor resolutely and, over time, obsessively forged ahead.
The intent, Mr. Moss said last week, was to make “a cinema-verité observation documentary, to really film life as it happened.” Working alone, he himself lived at the church for six months, capturing intimate and powerful moments, both between the pastor and the people seeking his help and in the pastor’s own struggle, an internal conflict that ultimately delivers a seismic and unexpected twist.
“The Overnighters” recalls both “The Grapes of Wrath,” John Steinbeck’s 1939 novel of the throngs of dust-bowl Americans driven to seek a better life in California, and the documentary filmmaker Michael Moore’s “Roger and Me,” in which the implications of transnational economic forces play out in individual lives in the Detroit suburb of Flint. Like these works, whether Steinbeck’s realist novel or Mr. Moore’s up-close portrayal of a dying community, “The Overnighters” tells a story much larger than the sum of its individual parts.
“Jay was very comfortable in front of the camera,” Mr. Moss said. “As a pastor, Jay is a performer in a way — he’s used to being in front of people. Also, many of these people coming to Williston had risked so much, and were very open as a way of surviving.” Living among them, he said, “I felt part of that community. You try to repay the trust and intimacy you’re given by making a truthful, honest, compassionate film.”
The extent to which Mr. Reinke was willing to help strangers — “to love thy neighbor, even when he is an ex-con,” Mr. Moss said — and even as members of the congregation, community, and government turned against him, was striking. “These men are hard to love, and he took them in,” he said. “I could tell he had put himself in opposition to his congregation and neighbors, and that things might not turn out well. In a sense, the men were his true congregation. I found his choice to be universally moral — that’s what resonated with me.”
Like many scenes in “The Overnighters,” the climactic twist unfolded spontaneously, Mr. Moss said. “It does leave the audience with some questions. There are ambiguities and complexities. What makes Jay’s decisions, particularly with regard to helping these men, morally profound is they’re not black and white, they’re shades of gray. Jay exists, as we all do, on that continuum of gray. That’s okay, that’s part of grappling with complexities.”
“The Overnighters” premiered in the U.S. Documentary Competition at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival, where it was awarded the Special Jury Prize for Intuitive Filmmaking. The film was also honored with the Golden Gate Award for best feature documentary at the San Francisco International Film Festival, the Grand Jury Prize at the Miami International Film Festival, and the Inspiration Award at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival. Drafthouse Films will release “The Overnighters” in theaters in the fall.
The Hamptons International Film Festival’s SummerDocs screening of “The Overnighters” happens tomorrow at 7:30 p.m. Alec Baldwin will host, and a question-and-answer session with special guests will follow. Tickets are $23, $21 for Guild Hall members, and are available at the box office or online at guildhall.org.