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Fracking Boom Town Wary Of Pastor's 'Overnighters'


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Fracking is high-pressure drilling into rock to release the gas inside. "The Overnighters" is a new documentary film about how the oil fracking boom in North Dakota applies high pressure to the small town of Williston and the Reverend Jay Reinke, pastor of the Concordia Lutheran Church. He begins a program called "The Overnighters" that permits men who've come to Williston to search for work to sleep on the floors or in the parking lot of his church.


REVEREND JAY REINKE: (Singing) Holy Lord God Almighty. Early in the - morning, gentlemen.

SIMON: The pastor tries to help with food and fellowship, but the church and the town grow alarm to the crush of outsiders. As the film progresses, you see the high pressure that unrelenting good works puts on Pastor Reinke and his family and the pressure his own past puts on the pastor.

"The Overnighters" won the Special Jury Award for Intuitive Filmmaking at this year's Sundance Festival. And the filmmaker is Jesse Moss. He joins us now from NPR West. Thanks so much for being with us.

JESSE MOSS: Hi, Scott. Thanks for having me.

SIMON: I gather from reading about the film that you began by trying to tell the story of what was happening to Williston and then you discovered this intense human portrait at the center.

MOSS: Actually, Pastor Jay wrote a clergy column in the local newspaper. He called upon his community to welcome these newcomers, and I knew that was an unusual sentiment in Williston. I called him up, and he said, there are people sleeping in my church. You've got to come and see what's happening here. And so that was the invitation I needed to go to Williston. And I just began to film.

SIMON: The story picks up pace when it turns out that two of the men that the pastor helps are convicted sexual offenders. And I think when you look at the film, you find yourself torn between admiring the pastor's principles in bringing those men into his church, into his family home, too, for that matter and yet wondering, what are you thinking?

MOSS: I think in a very dramatic way, Jay was confronting choices that we all confront in our own lives about helping people. In this case, he was presented with a thousand desperate men and women on his doorstep who needed a place to stay. But it's true that some of these men were troubled. But they were looking for a fresh start. And isn't that why you run to a boom town? Because you hope that people will overlook your mistakes or just care can you do the job?

SIMON: There's a scene we want to run here where there's a young reporter who is truly running after the pastor, chasing him down the street.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Pastor Reinke, you haven't answered a single question about the several sex offenders who have lived in your parking lot. You knew about this? You invited this person into your home from what I understand. You have daughters. Is that true or not?

MOSS: I think it's a really difficult question the film is presenting which is, is the paper doing its job? Or is it inflaming the fears of the community by focusing very much on these men with criminal records?

But I think the thing to remember is, you know, these were people who were looking for second chances. And so I think what you see in Jay too is someone who believes in their goodness. And I think you might say that's naivete. But I think that's compassion.

SIMON: It's certainly compassion, and it's admirable. But, you know, he's making the people closest to him pay a price.

MOSS: Well, I think that Jay is drawn into this cause in a way that he didn't expect. I think it's like he'd left his congregation and found this new congregation of overnighters. And he told me I think in one of our first conversations, you know, I might lose my job for doing this, but that's OK.

SIMON: When did you begin to understand the pastor had a secret?

MOSS: You know, fairly early on he did in a way indicate to me that he carried burdens. You know, through the film you hear him talk about his identification with these broken and burdened men and women. And you might interpret that as strictly theological, but really it is personal.

SIMON: Yeah. I mean, I would want it understood that the pastor had sexual involvements outside of the bounds of marriage - certainly not what we would call sex crimes or anything that qualifies as a sex offense.

MOSS: No, no, no. They're not. They're very different. But it was conduct behavior that he has to confess both to his congregation and to his wife. I mean, these were some of the most intimate scenes that I had ever filmed as a documentary filmmaker. And I filmed some pretty intimate ones over the years.

SIMON: He tells his wife his secret and...

MOSS: Yeah.


MOSS: And the whole family - you know, it's totally unscripted. I mean, we're watching his life play out in front of us. And I think that's the power of the film. And the power of cinema verite documentary filmmaking is when something you'd never expect, whether it's a reporter chasing him down the street, a woman pulling a gun on him - which happened while I was rolling.

SIMON: And the same women who hit you with a broom?

MOSS: That's right. She hit me on the back with a broom. You know, and that was a challenging moment, but nothing like the moment where Jay in a very unexpected way decides to share this very personal thing with his wife. And the camera's there, and I'm there.

SIMON: How hard is it to be as good as Pastor Reinke tries to be?

MOSS: Very few of us could ever be that good. But I think Jay would be the first to admit that he's not all good. He's bad, too. And that's what I liked about him when he told me, you know, Jesse, no one has pure motives. Maybe this is about vanity. Maybe this is about ego. But nonetheless, when faced with that test when there were a thousand desperate people on his doorstep, he opened his door. And the truth is most of us would never do that.

SIMON: Jesse Moss, his new film "The Overnighters." Thanks so much for being with us

MOSS: Scott, thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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