The Overnighters tells the story of Pastor Jay Reinke, of Wiliston, ND, who opened the doors of his church, Concordia Lutheran, and his home to homeless men seeking jobs in the oil fields. While some of the struggles may be obvious to the audience, director Jesse Moss’ watchful eye explores the more nuanced stories of these men, this pastor, and the community around the church, discovering that there’s more than what first appears. No stranger to documentaries, Moss took time out of the busy film festival schedule and promotion of the film to catch up on what it meant to film this story and how it impacted him.
Moss has been making documentaries for twenty years, and after five years of apprenticeship, he went out on his own, seeking independent film and television documentaries. His first, Speedo, chronicled demolition derby racing, and his most recent, Full Battle Rattle, explored the fake Middle East town set up for training purposes in the Mojave Desert. After reading a clergy column that Reinke wrote in the local newspaper, challenging his community to accept these homeless, migrant workers, Moss went to North Dakota himself to meet the pastor.
“Pastor Jay was captivating, very open and intimate,” Moss said. “He told me there were men and women living in his church, and I ended up filming over eighteen months. I would travel there once a month, usually for a week at a time, sleeping on the floor.”
I asked Moss if it was that vulnerability that led to the trust we see in the film itself, if being with them allowed these men, the pastor, and the pastor’s family to show him behind the scenes. “Yes, I absolutely think that’s it. I went up there alone, without a crew, and got to know them. I think that did it.”
We chatted about the scene in the film where Moss actively becomes part of the story – something he said he normally wouldn’t have considered for the final film, but felt was too real to pass up. “Typically I wouldn’t put myself or camera in the movie. This was just a really unexpected moment. It happens in the film when things in the film are really destabilized. I thought it showed how much more real it was. People think we’re orchestrating this but we’re not. Of course, you’re making choices about filming – you’re a witness and building relationships. It builds around trust you forge with people, but it’s real life.”
Describing the church and the people around Reinke, Moss thought that by the time he arrived, Reinke was primarily on his own with the support of his family. “Initially, the church was receptive, but I don’t think anyone understood how much it would take or how it would grow or how long it would need to run. There were a few congregants who supported him, but the majority of the congregation was opposed. They worked with Jay on some changes, and kind of shrunk the program down, but it wasn’t ever formalized. [The mission] grew organically. Jay had to adapt to the program as it expanded.”
There are two ‘major twists’ in the film; the first which occurs a third of the way into the film as it’s made public that there are sex offenders among the homeless men, and another one in the ‘final act’ of the story. I asked Moss if he knew about those aspects when he began filming or if he saw them in the same chronology we did. “I discovered it as I filmed,” he said. “It wasn’t a problem until the sex offenders became known to the newspaper and Jay was confronted with that choice. Could he provide somewhere else for them to stay? It wasn’t an issue he was grappling with until about six months [into my filming]. The newspaper discovered it and Jay was concerned by how the congregation would respond to the men.”
“There was very little support –it was inflammatory. The newspaper discovered – and I’m not sure how- but at some point, two men had used the church address as their mailing address and were sex offenders; around the same time, the man Paul Engel who was aware the pastor was making rooms for sex offenders, and was angry about being displaced, went to the newspaper. “
Reinke took some major criticism at this point in the film, which may be obvious given that he’s going against the majority of his congregation. I told Moss that in my experience as a pastor, those situations do arise but I wondered what he saw behind the scenes that impacted his personal feelings about the situation. Moss said that he was very sympathetic to Reinke. “He was trying to help people. He was taking real risks and could’ve done some things differently; he was reckless at times. It was hard to watch as I was very close to him and seeing his struggles. That’s the dilemma of the filmmaker [to be watching someone suffer] but it’s good drama. I knew from the moment I met him that he was struggling with helping these people and what would happen if he did.”
So, I asked, because I had been dying to, “does anything change about your mindset given how the film ends? I want other people to see it, but I wonder if the struggles that happen won’t cloud people’s ability to see the real issues?”
Moss paused and shared some of the most personal ‘director-related’ comments I’d ever heard, highlighting the impact that a growing relationship with the pastor has had on him.
“This was a real religious education for me. It was a privilege to see Jay’s faith and struggle. The message that Jay preaches is that it’s a broken world, and everyone’s got burdens, even him. Doing good is hard. Jay’s willingness to be vulnerable really drew me in. Life is messy and complicated.
“There’s a real humility and bravery to his honesty, to share his own burdens. His willingness to believe in some of these people who’ve done wrong. Regardless of what they feel about his personal conduct, I hope people will see the bigger picture. It’s easy to fear the unknown, the immigrant, but he fights for the inclusive community. The film may take some unexpected turns, and may be challenging for people. It doesn’t provide answers but provokes questions. Whether they’re a Christian or a person of faith at all, liberal or conservative, I think the film provides a human story. So many of these documentaries provide answers like yes/no, this is right, and this film this provides “love thy neighbor.”
For his part, Moss seemed intent on putting the story in front of people, and drawing out of them how they could “love thy neighbor” better. “I’m really interested when pastors, faith groups, come to the film. It’s hard to reach these people with documentary work because they’re used to it taking one hardline side or another. I didn’t grow up in church; it was really unfamiliar but I came with curiosity and an open heart. I was watching Jay’s struggle and faith and have real appreciation for the way he lived his faith.”
We finished up with some questions about the future, like what happens if he wins an Oscar, affording him a blank check for a project? (He wants another American story that matters, and I don’t see that changing.) And what of Pastor Jay? Have we seen the last of him?
“The most important thing on the DVD is an interview I had with Jay a few months ago,” Moss said, “after it was all finished. Jay remains optimistic- it’s kind of corny but true, he says, ‘plan B is plan blessing.’ It’s his philosophy even though he’s had hard times and struggles- it’s what I love about him.”
Here’s one pastor and movie critic who hopes that’s what moviegoers and churches will see, too.