The widely talked about documentary “The Overnighters” aired on PBS June 29th, the second film of “POV’s” 2015-2016 season. If you didn’t catch it and want to see it, the film is now streaming on the “POV” website until July 15th. Some people seem to love this documentary, while others are highly critical of its subjects and the choices of the filmmaker. Life isn’t black and white, and this film can best be described as a pulse in the complicated gray matter.
“The Overnighters” documents a time in Williston, North Dakota, when the oil business is booming and men are arriving from around the world in search of work. What some find when they arrive in Williston, however, isn’t the American dream, but a severe housing shortage and a lack of jobs.
Seeking assistance, these men begin showing up at Concordia Lutheran Church. Pastor Jay Reinke embraces them as “gifts” and opens his church to the men as a place of refuge. Soon the church is overflowing with “overnighters” sleeping in pews, on the church’s floor, and even in the parking lot. The congregation and the Williston community become concerned for their safety after a rise in crime occurs in the area and the unsettling backgrounds of some of the men staying at Reinke’s church are revealed. What follows is Reinke’s plight to keep the Overnighters program open, his congregation intact, and his personal life from falling apart.
The film is directed and produced by Jesse Moss. It feels like a large production due to the high quality of cinematography, yet Moss is the sole filmmaker on location in Williston. His shots of the North Dakota plains are stunning. He captures many intimate moments with Reinke and the men, which are commendable and often make one feel as if he or she is occupying the same space as Reinke.
There are many interesting points in the film, yet the storyline drops off from being about the Overnighters program to being about Reinke himself, which isn’t entirely unexpected given how dedicated Reinke is to helping the men at his church. His personal disclosures though, particularly the scene in which he admits to being unfaithful to his wife, is an unnecessary and painful inclusion that the film simply didn’t need. I was saddened for Reinke’s family and for Reinke, and disappointed that Moss chose to use it. When doing research hoping to understand Moss’s reasoning behind including it, I came across an interview he did in 2014 with BuzzFeed in which he states, “My understanding was he was going to tell her in a private place without me present. Which I thought to be entirely appropriate.” He continues,
I don’t think either of them thought about the fact that I was there, and then suddenly, they were having part of this conversation in this grocery store with me there. It was actually a very short conversation, in which he told her what he tells her. Never once did they look at me and ask me to turn the camera off. I would have done that.
The Reinkes shouldn’t have had to ask Moss to turn the camera off. Ultimately, the responsibility was with Moss while editing the film to choose whether to use the scene or not. Its inclusion came across as Moss taking advantage of the Reinke’s deeply personal moment to add an additional snippet of drama to his film. What it added though, was poor taste and a dark cloud to an otherwise well-intentioned picture.
“The Overnighters” will leave you with unanswered questions. Perhaps that’s okay. It’s an intriguing and complex documentary. Gray matter, or the human experience, is filled with loose ends and progress. Communities change. People change. Situations change. Documentaries on “POV” are meant to make you think and cause discussion. In that regard, this was a great film choice by PBS.