A real-life Steinbeckian story for the new millennium, Cinema Lecturer Jesse Moss’ The Overnighters focuses on desperate, broken men chasing their dreams and running from their demons in the North Dakota oil fields, and a local pastor who risks everything to help them. It opens nationwide this month and has critics calling it one of the best films of the year.
Moss not only directed and produced The Overnighters, but also shot it on his own, in a cinéma-vérité style. He spent a year and a half in the small town of Williston, sleeping in hallways and on couches alongside workers, among the tens of thousands of unemployed hopefuls who showed up with dreams of honest work and a big paycheck under the lure of the fracking boom.
Much of the documentary focuses on a local pastor who converts his church into a makeshift dorm and counseling center, allowing the workers to stay for a night, a week or longer. They sleep on the floor, in the pews and in their cars in the church parking lot.
“I went thinking I was going to make a film about oil extraction, and I’m suddenly making a film about faith and the Christian ethic and the struggles of a church to define for itself what its role in this community is, and what the role of the pastor in it is. Now, these things have very little to do with that other thing,” Moss told The New York Times. “But, of course, they have everything to do with it.”
In its review praising The Overnighters as one of the year’s most powerful films, Vox writes: “It’s also like being punched in the gut, over and over again. Moss displays a rare breed of patience as he follows around his characters, waiting for the fraught situation they’ve placed themselves in to boil over, and when it does, he’s somehow there to watch as everything slides toward disaster.”
The Overnighters opens October 24 in San Francisco and Berkeley for a one-week run; Moss will be present for audience Q&As at select screenings during the opening weekend.
The Overnighters premiered in the U.S. Documentary Competition at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival, where it was awarded the Special Jury Prize for Intuitive Filmmaking. Other prizes include the Golden Gate Award for Best Feature Documentary at the San Francisco International Film Festival, Grand Jury Prize at the Miami International Film Festival and Inspiration Award at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival.
Moss’ previous films include Full Battle Rattle, which premiered at the 2008 Berlinale, won the Special Jury Prize at SXSW and opened theatrically at the Film Forum in New York. Prior, he directed Speedo: A Demolition Derby Love Story, which won festival awards and critical raves across the country, was acquired by PBS and optioned by Warner Bros Pictures. HBO commissioned his first film, Con Man, about an Ivy League impostor. Moss also produced William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe, which premiered at Sundance in 2009, and was distributed by Arthouse Films. He has twice been a fellow of the MacDowell Colony and the Sundance Institute Documentary Film Program.