★★★★ | The Overnighters

After North Dakota introduced the controversial technology known as fracking in 2008 it suddenly became the nation’s second largest oil producing State.

So as the economic recession started to kick in really hard over the next few years, thousands of unemployed men unable to find work in their part of the country flocked to the new oilfields hoping to secure jobs. Many ended up the city of Willaston which is located in the oil-rich region in the west of the state. Totally unprepared for job searching which could take some considerable time or at which they could fail as they were totally unqualified, many of these migrant workers ended up being homeless and destitute.

Their one chance of surviving and making their dreams succeed lay in the hands of an extraordinary local Lutheran Pastor who mounted what turned out to be a one man band to help these men try and succeed and move on. Pastor Reinke knew that the City permitted people to sleep overnight in their own cars if they were parked legally, but for the people that had come by bus and train, he went one step further and opened up the church premises and allowed them to sleep on any floor space they could claim.

This program called ‘the overnighters’ was started in the dead of winter and the church’s congregation went along with their leader’s plan assuming that when the spring came, the men would move out and on. But each day more and more men arrived seeking refuge and the trickle turned into a flood. The Pastor suggested that the men make a voluntary contribution towards their keep, but insisted on them submitting to a background check and also attending church.

As this influx of cars and men impacted the neighbourhood and at the same, the crime rate also rose the local paper started to voice the concerns of the community and published a few damning pieces on the Pastor’s activities. In a badly thought out move he panicked and invited one of the men who had been a convicted sex offender to stay with his own family to take the heat off for a while… but when word got out, it was the start of the unravelling of the whole program and the Pastor’s own life.

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Director Jesse Moss was his own one-man crew when he filmed this in 2012/3 and he gets up close and personal in telling the intimate stories of some of the men that are passing through in the hope of a better life. And although their struggles simply to survive are a powerful indictment on the effects of the downturn of a global economy on ordinary working men, it is the Pastor’s own somewhat bewildering and incessant crusade that is the main focus here. Reinke is resolute in his sheer doggedness to offer these men shelter and hope despite the overwhelming objections of the City, and of his own congregation who are angry at being railroaded into giving their support to something they can no longer tolerate.

The Pastor’s very blinkered approach to expecting all of his neighbours to act as he believes Christians too unfairly casts them as the devil’s advocate when the refuse to go along with all his plans, and he eventually pays the cost of pushing them all too hard. There is more than hint that he has his own troubled past and on one occasion when he sympathies with one of the men who is baring his tormented soul, he remarks that they have a lot more in common than the other man would think. There are also the tell-tale signs of sudden flares of anger when Reinke believes that anyone has betrayed his trust in him. And then when the chips are down at the end of the movie, Reinke shocks his placid wife (and us) with a surprising confession.

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Moss’s movie never steers shy from showing the sheer despair of these men, and even of their guardian angel too. This compelling feature length documentary is quite an eye opener, in every sense of the word.

In UK Cinemas 31st October

About the author: Roger Walker-Dack
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