Sit down to watch an American film and chances are that, even if said film is supposed to revolve around a ‘normal family’, the characters will own a vast and immaculately decorated home. Switch on the TV to watch an American series and you will encounter stylishly-dressed people working high-powered jobs and pulling down huge salaries with nothing to indicate that these people are the economic exception rather than the rule. Some might argue that this reflects the aspirational nature of American popular culture but what kind of aspiration would inspire people to systematically ignore the lived experiences of entire sections of American society? Is it the individual’s wish for something better or is it a more collective wish that certain types of people would simply… disappear? Given how thick this veil of propaganda can be, any work that manages to shine a light on the realities of life in the richest country on Earth must be deemed a triumph and Jesse Moss’s documentary The Overnighters is a flawed and frustrating triumph.
2006 saw the discovery of a huge reserve of oil and gas near the town of Parshall, North Dakota. Oil companies rolled out fracking technology across the area resulting in an oil boom that continues to this day. This boom continued throughout the recession and the rate of industrial expansion was so great that rumours began to circulate of people walking off the street into 6-figure salaries. Out of work and out of luck, America’s desperate began to make their way to North Dakota but while the oil industry was certainly in a position to provide jobs, the rental market simply could not cope with the influx of workers meaning that rents spiralled upwards leaving workers to sleep in their cars despite that face that North Dakota winters have been known to see temperatures as low as -51 degrees centigrade.
Moved by the plight of the working poor arriving on his doorstep, a Lutheran pastor named Jay Reinke decided to allow these men to sleep in his parking lot, his church and ultimately his home. The documentary begins with nerves already beginning to fray and tensions beginning to rise as Reinke is forced to battle not only his neighbours but also his parishioners and family to keep the ‘overnighters’ programme in operation. Acting without the support of either the state or the booming oil industry, Reinke manages to house and feed hundreds of workers who simply did not have anywhere else to go.
The Overnighters has picked up a number of awards from American film festivals and it is easy to see why: The American media are more than happy to champion the booming oil industry and chronicle the rags-to-riches stories of the few people who happened to walk straight into high-paying jobs but they omit the hundreds of people who leave their families in the hope of a better tomorrow only to find a freezing North Dakota winter and jobs that pay so little that they can’t make rent. If the American media refuse to show what it means to be a member of the American working class then it falls to documentarians like Jesse Moss to reveal the unpalatable truth. Judged by this yardstick, The Overnighters is an important and necessary film that shows not only the ugly realities of American life but also the systematic failures of American institutions.
The most striking thing about this documentary is how little support Reinke gets from… well… anyone. The oil industry in North Dakota is going through a period of historic expansion and yet despite record profits rolling in to corporate coffers, none of the oil companies seems to provide food or shelter for the thousands of people they employ. The oil boom has reportedly given the under-populated state of North Dakota a billion-dollar budget surplus and yet the state would rather shut down the church and ban people from living in caravans than find a way to house and feed the thousands of people who helped to create that surplus. Even more shocking is the way that Reinke is forced to battle his own church as parishioners file into his office and trumpet their Christian values in the same breath as they complain about poor people making the place look untidy.
Moss undoubtedly hit upon a fascinating and important subject when he decided to make The Overnighters but once he has established the nature of the economic situation in North Dakota, the film begins to lose its way. The problem is that, rather than working with the footage he had and focusing upon the systemic problems faced by America’s working poor, Moss decides to focus upon the individual stories of men who seem very reluctant to talk about themselves.
Werner Herzog’s Into The Abyss shows that using personal stories to highlight broader social trends can be a highly effective strategy as it allows directors to anchor their moral arguments in the audience’s capacity to feel empathy for real people with real problems. Unfortunately, whereas Herzog was able to draw upon a large group of subjects who could talk engagingly about their own problems, Moss was forced to contend with a primary subject who was in denial and a pair of secondary subjects who seemed incapable of doing anything other than vent bile and sit around looking depressed. How does one build a human interest story around people who seem unwilling to speak about themselves? Nowhere is the film’s desperation for human drama more pronounced than in the concluding scenes where Moss tries to use an entirely unrelated personal crisis in the life of the pastor to give the film a big dramatic ending. Forced, ill-judged and more than a little exploitative, these final moments will leave you yearning for what The Overnighters might have been had Moss decided to ask questions of the oil industry and local government rather than people who were manifestly not yet ready to talk about themselves.