Hydraulic fracking has turned the sleepy town of Williston, North Dakota, into a hub of the state’s oil boom. The new oil money has drawn hopeful workers from all over the economically depressed United States to the town (its population nearly doubled from 2010 to 2013). However, a lack of affordable housing in the area has created an epidemic of homelessness in the town.
This is the backdrop that The Overnighters is set against. The documentary follows Pastor Jay Reinke, a Williston preacher who turns his church into a shelter for homeless migrants against the wishes of the townspeople, local government and his congregation. The mostly xenophobic population of the town doesn’t welcome the newcomers, who they view as treacherous criminals. Their local newspaper, a despicable right-wing rag called the Williston Herald, fans the flames of discontent while harassing and blackmailing Reinke.
The pastor’s an unusual hero. He’s performing selfless and necessary acts, but he has no idea what the hell he’s doing. He feels a religious duty to help everyone, but he opens his doors to some obviously untrustworthy tenants, which poisons the well for the desperate folks just trying to find work. At the root of it all is a profound secret that Reinke believes is a sin he needs to atone for.
The Overnighters serves as both a humane personal story and a treatise on the destructive force of unchecked capitalism. It’s hard to believe that these images of the unemployed, travelling across the country to sleep under a church pew out of some feeble hope of gainful employment, were taken in 2014 and not during the Great Depression. Director Jesse Moss has beautifully photographed a bleak reality in which ordinary people turn away those in need out of indifference. It’s real, and it’s heartbreaking.