WILLISTON N.D. (Reuters) - Desperate for a fresh start, unemployed workers from all over the world have converged on North Dakota’s burgeoning oil patch, seeking six-figure salaries and the rewards of living in the fastest-growing economy in the nation.
But award-winning documentary “The Overnighters,” opening in New York on Friday before expanding nationally, shows the bleak side of that American Dream and the complex efforts of one man to be a Good Samaritan.
“The film does show how much harder it is to survive here than people think,” filmmaker Jesse Moss told Reuters.
“The Overnighters” tracks the men, and a handful of women, whose dreams of wealth and redemption from past mistakes collide with unwelcoming residents and limited housing in Williston, the epicenter of the energy boom in North Dakota, where more than 1 million barrels of oil are produced monthly.
Lutheran pastor Jay Reinke offers down-on-their luck emigrants a place to sleep inside his church while they acclimate, labeling the newcomers as “overnighters.” About 1,000 took up his offer over a period of about two years.
That decision quickly becomes unpopular with the Williston establishment and nearly tears Reinke’s church and family apart.
“The people arriving on our doorsteps are gifts to us,” Reinke says in the film. “Not only are these men my neighbors, the people who don’t want them here are also my neighbors,” adds Reinke, a tall, effusive man who spent 20 years pastoring to the community in obscurity.
The film won a special jury prize at the Sundance Film Festival in January and has generated widespread acclaim. Variety magazine compared it to a John Steinbeck tale from the Great Depression of the 1930s, and The Hollywood Reporter called it “a sobering illustration of the tenuousness of stability in 21st-Century America.”
So far, there are no plans to show the film in Williston itself, Moss said.
Moss, who shot the film between 2012 and 2013, showcases North Dakota’s cerulean-hued skies and amber grasslands alongside oil rigs and pumpjacks, visually connecting the state’s cultural and physical transformation.
While many media reports tout the rich pay offered in North Dakota by oil companies, construction firms and even Walmart, they rarely mention the high cost of living and harsh winters that can be tough for newcomers.
Indeed, Williston is among the most-expensive cities in North America, with average monthly rents eclipsing $3,000.
Amid that upheaval, Reinke’s attempt to be all things to all people, including the overnighters, politicians, even his wife and four children, begins to wear him down.
His decision to welcome a convicted sex offender into his home - in an attempt to shield the church from unwanted press and offer a chance at redemption - only exacerbates the community’s mistrust of newly-arrived workers.
As the film climaxes, Reinke’s program is shut down by city officials, and the pastor’s private demons are exposed - revelations that Moss said took even him by surprise during filming.
“We all have burdens,” Moss said. “What Jay (Reinke) goes through, is totally, profoundly related to what this film is about.”
Reporting by Ernest Scheyder, editing by Jill Serjeant and Nick Zieminski