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Review: The Overnighters

BY ADAM GROMOTKA | NOVEMBER 20, 2014 5:00 AM

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The North Dakota oil boom draws media attention in all shapes and forms. An environmentalist might refer to the potential dangers of fracking, processing, shipping, and using crude oil buried in our northern states. Economically minded individuals will argue that it’s good for the economy, that it creates jobs and helps wean us off our so-called dependence on foreign fuel. But what about the small communities at the heart of oil country? The People? How are they affected by the presence of oil in the state?

Showing at FilmScene starting this weekend, The Overnighters is a documentary that sheds light on the matter in a way that’s complex and thoughtful without being too negative or demanding.

With an influx of men flocking to work, Pastor Jay Reinke tasks the Concordia Lutheran Church with providing shelter for those struggling to find it. Hydraulic fracking has led to drilling jobs, subsequently leading to a pilgrimage of hundreds of workers showing up in the hopes of working said jobs and finding a place to live in Williston, North Dakota (a town whose population has ballooned over the last few years). Some come from as far as Florida, following promises of a $15 minimum wage and six-figure salaries. As one hopeful in the documentary puts it:

“There’s boatloads of work in North Dakota. Boatloads.”

Men looking for work make the church their home, sleeping in its basement, hallways, and even in their cars in the building’s parking lot. But the boom of men in the town, many of whom come from questionable backgrounds and areas of hardship, tests the pastor’s goodwill as he’s bombarded with criticism and struggles to maintain a sense of community and the respect of and for his church.

The film cuts right to the chase, which is refreshing in a documentary of its length. This allows for more time to be spent crafting the story from as many angles as possible. The viewer hears from Reinke, his family, the men housed in his church, the community, the media, local lawmakers, and members of the church itself. As one might notice, the only party we don’t hear from is the oil industry, an interesting filmmaking decision that allows for oil production to function as a silent, relentless instigator of the area’s problems.

Besides doing their homework about the oil boom in North Dakota (a Wikipedia search will suffice), my only piece of advice for the viewer would be to eat frozen yogurt before entering the theater and to play with a swarm of puppies after leaving. The events in the film are hugely depressing, and the confusing passages of time from scene to scene make it seem like instance of bad news after instance of bad news after instance of bad news, which was probably done on purpose, but is soul-crushing all the same. I got sort of a Jesus-befriending-the-tax-collectors vibe from Reinke’s desire to help homeless workers and the community’s response to his efforts. It made me uncomfortable enough to think critically, as a good documentary should.

FilmScene’s decision to screen Overnighters this week is a timely one. With the discussion surrounding the Keystone XL Pipeline progressing, the film offers viewers an opportunity to witness the effects of oil production at a much more personal level, one that is generally avoided or altogether ignored by larger media outlets. While it could have been done as a shorter, 45-minute documentary, the film’s length allows it to craft a more thoughtful, less-fiery, less-biased, and less-idealistic analysis of North Dakota’s oil boom. There’s more to it than employment numbers and dollar signs.


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