Documentarian Jesse Moss’s new film, “The Overnighters,” takes a hard look at a border state community coming to grips with an influx of immigrants seeking a better life. Not Texas or Arizona, nor any state along the Rio Grande. Rather, Mr. Moss’ film is set in remote Williston, North Dakota.
The oil and gas boomtown attracted migrants from all over the United States seeking work in the state’s thriving oil and gas industry, like a modern-day “Grapes of Wrath.”
“It’s the age-old frontier narrative,” Mr. Moss told The Times from his home in San Francisco. “This is a place that Americans were headed post-recession to find work.”
At a time when immigration policy has deadlocked the halls of Congress, the themes of “The Overnighters” may resonate with a culture that continues to cast a weary eye upon those who come into their communities seeking a way to provide for themselves and their families.
Not only out-of-work Americans from all corners, but also immigrants from as far away as Africa and Iraq descend upon Williston, hoping against hope for the labor-intensive jobs.
Many of them have criminal records, which, naturally, concerns the town’s natives. In the film, a Williston resident worries that the migrants will cause trouble and even “bring diseases,” an uneasy echo of what is playing out along the U.S. southern border.
“This is an immigrant story in a way,” Mr. Moss said, “and yet these are Americans immigrating within America. And I think that’s the new America. It’s not people from south of the border, it’s people from everywhere in the United States. I think this has been the pattern of American migration for our history, of people moving to the frontier, and that’s what we have in Williston, a new frontier.
“That’s the story of the boomtowns. That’s the place where you can go, and people don’t care what you’ve done in the past, or if you’ve been to prison for 15 years. Can you do the job? And that’s very romantic — as almost a mythology of the boomtown.”
As tiny Williston had no infrastructure to support the influx of thousands of job-seekers, a local Lutheran pastor, Jay Reinke, set up a program to house migrants in his church. Dubbed the “Overnighters” program, Mr. Reinke offered food and shelter, even to those with checkered pasts.
“What made Jay’s choice so striking was that he looked at these people, and he didn’t fear them; he believed in their goodness,” Mr. Moss says of Mr. Reinke’s charity. Indeed, such is Mr. Reinke’s belief in Christian goodwill that he even houses a registered sex offender in the basement of the home he shares with his wife and children.
Not surprisingly, Mr. Reinke’s program raises concerns. Residents and even town decision-makers try to shut him down.
“These are, in some cases, people to fear reasonably,” Mr. Moss says. “These are people who have been to prison. He’s taking in the worst of the worst. But Jay meets them and thinks, you’re here to work, you’re here to find opportunity; I’m going to help you.
“I approached Jay’s choice as really a moral question. And the fact that those decisions to help people are really complicated. He was just trying to do good, like we all are.”
Mr. Reinke’s love-thy-neighbor ethos proves easier said than done. The film, shot over more than a year, dovetails with the increasing challenges, both personal and communally, that beset the program.
The church’s neighbors harangue Mr. Reinke and the migrants, town leaders cry zoning ordinances in attempt to remove job-seekers’ cars and mobile homes from parking lots, reporters get into Mr. Reinke’s face about the criminal records of those he shelters. Even the greater Lutheran power structure begins to question him.
Through it all, the charismatic and calming Mr. Reinke maintains his composure as the challengers to his family and pastorship mount.
Ironically, in doing good, “he was alienating his congregation,” Mr. Moss says. “He was [aggravating] his neighbors and taking time away from his family. He put himself on a course that I thought could end badly, yet he was still willing to do with such dedication and superhuman compassion.”
For most of the film’s running time, Mr. Reinke comes across as preternaturally calm and even-keeled in spite of the gradual ire that his own community raises against him. However, the struggle visibly begins to take its toll.
“I was struck by how self-aware he was and how self-critical he was willing to be,” Mr. Moss says of his erstwhile star. “I remember one of the things he said to me early on was, ‘Jesse, nobody has pure motives.’ Here’s a guy who’s not presenting himself as a saint or a perfect person; he’s just a guy who was presented with this choice. But he’s acknowledging that there’s maybe a complex set of motivations here.”
Of both his protagonist and the “Overnighters,” Mr. Moss said that it’s difficult to outrun who you truly are, whether it’s the migrants with sullied pasts or the open-hearted pastor. Your past and your character follow you, he says.
“I came to understand that Jay is a man who truly carries burdens, who truly feels himself to be broken, and yet you would look at him and think he’s this pillar of the community,” Mr. Moss says. “And yet he, like these men, really in his heart maybe doesn’t feel like he belongs in the community. Or if the community knew everything about him, they wouldn’t accept him. And so that’s why he fights so hard for these people.”
Indeed, the film’s final act pulls back the curtain on a rather private area of Mr. Reinke’s life. As in a good fictional film, the revelation challenges viewers to go back and review all of his previous actions in a new light. But Mr. Moss says that despite Mr. Reinke’s dark secret, it does not change the good will and humanity of his cause.
“For him, it was just about being a good Christian,” Mr. Moss emphasizes. “Living the Christian ethic, of loving his neighbor. Part of the mystery of Jay, for me, was where was that coming from in his heart? Was that a place that the film would ever unlock?”
Mr. Moss says his film transcends the oil boom and fearing the outsider; it’s really a story about humanity and the universal questions of charity and acceptance and forgiveness.
“What it means to love thy neighbor,” Mr. Moss summarizes, “not only to preach it, but to practice it.”
Mr. Moss will be Skypeing into a screening of “The Overnighters” at the West End Cinema in Washington on Saturday at 7:20 p.m. The film will also be showing at the Alamo Drafthouse in Loudon, Virginia, this weekend.