Hot Docs 2014: The Overnighters – Documentary Review

Director: Jesse Moss
Country: USA
Rating: PG
Runtime: 100 min

The film that a director sets out to create is not always the one that he or she ends up producing. When documentary filmmaker Jesse Moss began working on The Overnighters, he set out to create a portrait of the struggles of jobless men searching for work in North Dakota. As he explained at the film’s international premier at the Hot Docs film festival, however, the film quickly became about one fascinating individual who set out to help these men. This poignant documentary will educate, enthral, and, ultimately, surprise.  

The Overnighters

The Overnighters is set in the small community of Williston, North Dakota, where the oil fields promise good paying jobs to those down on their luck. With this influx of potential workers comes the need for inexpensive housing that the town is not prepared to meet, and many men find themselves with nowhere to stay the night. Enter Pastor Jay, a local man who allows these men to sleep in his church free of charge, contrary to the wishes of many in his church and the surrounding community, as well as his own family. Pastor Jay even goes so far as to open his own home to those who cannot stay in the church. As the documentary progresses, it becomes clear just how much Pastor Jay has put at risk to help those in need and do what he feels to be the right thing.

This film was originally supposed to be about the men who sought jobs, and it does take time to focus on several of their stories, including a very young and hardworking father for whom it is easy for an audience to feel sympathy. It is possible to become involved in these stories, and there are moments of tense drama and emotion present throughout. However, the documentary does become more focused on Pastor Jay himself, and the camera spends most of its time following him as he attempts to provide a shelter while keeping his congregation and neighbours content, as well as going up against his local city council. Interviews with others provide context and scope to his work, as not everybody is on board with his plan. The film also contains moments of cinematic artistry, such as a scene wherein a woman’s threatening advances with a shotgun is set to a classical score and an atmospheric Halloween scene, which enhance the potential for interest and the overall viewing experience.

The Overnighters

The Overnighters is a film that reveals both the light and darker sides of humanity. Many people react harshly towards the men needing a place to stay, yet others are generous, and the gratitude of these individuals is at times boundless. A late twist in the plot reveals that not all is as cut and dry as one may have assumed, however, and the final moments of the film causes an audience to question all that came before. This is a film that is ultimately about people, their actions and reactions, and it is not afraid to take a stand. The truly shocking – and possibly ironic – conclusion is powerful insomuch that it is able to have such an effect. At the screening I attended, Pastor Jay, who was in attendance, received a standing ovation from a highly supportive crowd. Here is a film that you truly must see to fully understand, and from which you will be forced to draw your own moralistic conclusions.