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Director Jesse Moss filming his documentary <em>The Overnighters.</em>
Director Jesse Moss filming his documentary The Overnighters.

Sudden impact

Documentary | Films that deal fairly with Christians are getting a respectful audience at major film festivals

Issue: "Believing in Iraq," May 17, 2014

NEW YORK—The credits rolled at a screening and an audience at a Chelsea theater erupted in extended applause for a middle-aged, theologically conservative Lutheran as he walked to the front, his son in tow. Jay Reinke is the central character in an award-winning documentary The Overnighters that had its New York premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival. The film shows Reinke serving as the pastor of a Missouri Synod Lutheran church in one of North Dakota’s fracking boom towns that have been inundated with male laborers. The population has expanded so quickly that housing is expensive or impossible to find; RV camps pop up everywhere, and workers sleep in their cars.

Williston, the North Dakota town at the center of the film, bans RVs and tries to prevent the men, some former convicts and drug addicts, from parking anywhere overnight. Despite the town’s hostility, Reinke’s church decided to open its doors and let men looking for work sleep in the church and its parking lot. Over two years, until the city shut down the church’s program, the church hosted, prayed with, and preached to 1,000 overnighters. They work on resumés together and share job contacts and discuss family problems. It’s a fantastically complex film that treats its Christian subjects fairly and compassionately.

The Tribeca Film Festival, though only 12 years old, is growing into one of the major festivals along with Sundance, Toronto, and South By Southwest. The festival circuit has grown more and more influential as independent films draw wider audiences and more dollars. The Overnighters wasn’t the only film at Tribeca with a religious main character, a small indication of a shifting attitude among the film elite. The Overnighters won an award at Sundance and already has a distributor, Drafthouse Films, which is scheduling a theatrical release in November.

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Gaining access to major festivals is hard enough; a theatrical release is the stuff of filmmakers’ dreams. Drafthouse plans to adopt a new distribution strategy so the film screens beyond art house theaters. If a community has enough people who want to see the film, Drafthouse will help them book a showing in their town.

At a coffee shop in Chelsea between screenings of his film, I asked Jesse Moss, director of The Overnighters, if he thought he faced any barriers to getting a film into festivals with a devout Christian as the main character. First of all, he said directors who want to get into festivals just need to make good films, regardless of religious content. But he’s noticed “a real appetite” for films about issues of faith. 

Craig Detweiler, a film professor at Pepperdine University in Malibu, Calif., has noticed the same thing over the decade he has taken a group of his students to Sundance, along with film students from other Christian colleges on the West Coast. Detweiler has seen more openness to religion at festivals, which he attributes to a postmodern society where everyone has a camera and a seat at the table. “In an earlier era film festivals might have been comfortable presenting one-sided attacks on religion,” Detweiler said. “I think we’re just seeing the first wave of what has been building over 20 years. … Independent film at its best is about crossing borders and lifting alternative voices.”

MOSS, WHO LIVES IN SAN FRANCISCO, does not consider himself religious and had not intended to make a film centered on a church and a pastor when he went out to make a documentary on the fracking boom. “I think if you had asked me three years ago, could I ever imagine making a film about a Lutheran pastor in a church, I’d say no,” he said. As Moss spent more time in Williston, he realized that the pastor should be the center of the story, a “prism,” he says, through which to see the economic struggle of the men drawn to the boom town. The film has echoes of John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath—the struggle of the lower class seeking opportunity in an unknown place, where few people have compassion for their plight. One overnighter who finally gets a construction job, leaves the church, and rents a ramshackle room finds out that his wife at home has left him for another man. As he packs his bags to go try to win her back, he mourns that he came out to provide for his family, and it will perhaps cost him his family.

The thousands still flocking to North Dakota are part of an “age-old American journey” to the frontier in search of opportunity, said Moss. “We know from the gold rush of 1849, all those guys that went out there to mine for gold really found very little. They found, maybe, something else,” he said. “So I wanted to follow people, including Jay, to see whether this boom brought redemption and opportunity and promise that they were seeking or whether it was fool’s gold–whether the reality of leaving your home and family behind and thinking you can go out and start a new life and save yourself or save your family, whether that’s an illusion. And I don’t think it is, but the reality of surviving in Williston is much, much harder than people realize.”

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