Off the back of its Sundance buzz, Jesse Moss’ award-winning The Overnighters was tipped as a similarly high-profile premiere at Sheffield Doc/Fest this year. It really is a documentary for the modern age: about the growing division between rich and poor, the need for jobs and the lack of labour. In North Dakota, the fracking rush brought thousands of desperate workers from across the US who all came in search of a better life – to pursue that elusive, if not illusive, American dream based on the concept of liberating oneself from economic turmoil. Inevitably, the work dried up, but scores of unemployed people hung around in the small town of Concordia, hoping that jobs would spring up and they could climb aboard.
Overcrowding became a central issue; pastor of the Concordia Lutheran Church Jay Reinke however, enacted not only what he felt to be his Christian obligation, but a human duty, to house and shelter these men and women. Moss follows the agonies of his decision: strains on his family as he invites strangers into his Church and even into his home, disputes with his loyal congregation who feel threatened and unsettled by the presence of the incoming overnighters, and more insightfully, the internal struggle of Reinke battling to weigh up the consequences of his steadfastness against a community that disagrees with him on nearly all fronts.
Perhaps the most winning subplot to Moss’ documentary is that it portrays a genuine moral compromise in which the right/wrong duality is constantly see-sawed. Even here in the UK, homelessness between October and December of last year was calculated at around 20,000 – while recent news stories on “anti-homeless spikes” have caused uproar (if not influenced genuine change). Publically, homelessness is an affecting concern that solving, because of economic hardship even among the middle-classes, seems out of our reach. Reinke tries to solve it as best he can, offering floor space, advice and a nudge towards the path of religion if he can.
The journey through his encounters with the local newspaper, clearly opposed to his charity, his clashes with the local council, is desperately emotive. Whether or not we would do the same causes us to question our own levels of tolerance, resilience and altruism. As the situation spirals out of control, Reinke is at risk of becoming an overnighter in his own town and Moss investigates the idea of self-sacrifice to its limit. While Moss focuses on this raw, microscopic aspect of life, perhaps fleshing out to an examination of the fracking companies who make millions would provide even greater contrast. There’s no risk to the storyline but rather a need to challenge those who hold all the wealth.
That said, the result is rather a rich and aching portrayal of vanishing community: suspicious of outsiders, hyper-protective over trade, militant about migration. It is a mighty account of morality under true stress, a beautifully crafted and sincere depiction of how much we are willing to sacrifice to help our fellow man. It is held sensitively, but never mawkishly, instead grieving for the individuals whose work may simply be too much for them to shoulder alone. Stunning at times, The Overnighters is as worthy a case for additional industry across the First World than any political speech.