WILLISTON, N.D. – A documentary about a Williston church that opened its doors to job-seekers who needed a place to sleep will premiere today at the Sundance Film Festival.
“The Overnighters” by San Francisco filmmaker Jesse Moss documents the stories of men who arrive in the oil boomtown seeking new opportunities but are faced with a shortage of housing and harsh living conditions.
Moss visited North Dakota 16 times over two years to film men and women who stayed at Williston’s Concordia Lutheran Church while searching for jobs. The 100-minute film follows Jay Reinke, former pastor of Concordia Lutheran, and four men who came to North Dakota and stayed at the church.
“The film is very observational in its storytelling,” Moss said. “I really wanted to let the people that I met tell their own stories.”
Moss said he first visited the Williston church and its temporary shelter program referred to as “the Overnighters” after he read a newspaper column written by Reinke that emphasized welcoming newcomers to the community rather than fearing them.
“The moment I set foot in the church and I met him and some of the men and women who were there and I saw really the desperation on their faces, I thought there’s a remarkable story to be told here that I don’t think has been told in depth,” Moss said.
The film highlights the challenges facing the community dealing with the influx of a new population. The program at Concordia drew concerns from neighbors, and city officials ordered it to close last August if the building wasn’t upgraded to meet zoning codes. After the film was finished, Williston leaders continue to discuss how to accommodate newcomers who don’t have housing.
Moss said he hopes the film provides a way for people to understand what’s happening in Williston and other towns in America being transformed by energy booms.
“There’s much that’s good, but there’s much that’s also hard, challenging, with growth,” Moss said.
Many of the people Moss filmed did not stay in North Dakota, he said.
“It was extremely hard for them. Many of them found work. That wasn’t the problem,” Moss said. “It was the pain of separation from their families, the pain of surviving in a place without friends and a community around them, and the harshness of the climate.”
Reinke, who said he resigned from his position last fall for personal reasons not related to the Overnighters program, declined to comment on the film.
The film will be screened six times during the festival in Park City, Utah, and is part of the U.S. Documentary Competition. Moss, who worked alone on the independent film other than with his wife and producing partner, Amanda McBaine, said it’s exciting to premiere it at Sundance.
“Just being there is a great victory for the film and for the story and the messages of the film,” Moss said.