A Strange Review: The Overnighters

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So I first wrote about The Overnighters back in October, when the documentary hit film festivals. All I had to go on was the trailer—and a couple of comments to my post. Now I’ve had a chance to watch the film via streaming on Flexnertz.

For those of you who have been otherwise occupied with life or work or space travel, North Dakota has been experiencing something of an oil rush, what with the fracking boom in those parts. Workers from around the country have been pouring into hot spots looking to make some serious cash. A lot of these workers were unable to find work of any kind in their home states, owing either to the flat economic environment since 2008, a lack of education, or serious felony convictions that make getting hired difficult even under the best of economic conditions.

Where do all those workers stay while they’re on the job in North Dakota? The oil companies aren’t putting them up. And what happens when labor supply begins to exceed demand? Do all those would-be workers just pull a one-eighty and head back home?

Documentary producer and director Jesse Moss (William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe) decided to check it out for himself and headed to Williston, a city that has seen its population just about double due to this influx of the underemployed. According to a story in Rolling Stone, Moss was:

looking for something that would bring the situation in this small town — in effect, a microcosmic version of what the country was experiencing — into focus. While he was searching for a way into the bigger-picture storyline, he started spending a lot of that time at Concordia Lutheran Church; he soon got to know Pastor Jay Reinke, a man who’d opened up his home and church to these workers in need of a place to stay. The more Moss followed the charismatic Reinke around, however, the more the director noticed that the antagonism in the community once certain revelations about the men staying at the church came to light. The result is The Overnighters, his documentary on the conflict between wary locals and wandering laborers that won a Special Jury Prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. It’s a profound exploration of charity, community and faith — both the holy man’s and the filmmaker’s.

The holy man’s.

The film is narrated by the holy man, in fact, an LCMS pastor. The microcosm that is Williston is made ever more micro as interpreted by Reinke, whom we see doing his damnedest to meet the needs of his neighbors. He began his “Overnighters” program by offering temporary housing inside the church to temporarily homeless workers. As the numbers of workers increased, the overflow hit the church parking lot, where guys slept in their cars. Eventually, Reinke opened his home to some of them.

The film’s narrative is quite simple: Christ-like pastor, father of four, husband, all-around loving guy, tries to “save” these lost men as they try and save their dignity and families from penury, while the hard-hearted, fearful-of-change congregation and outlying community become increasingly outraged at this intrusion into their lives of people who may as well be hobos or carpetbaggers. When Reinke counsels one of the overnighters to cut his hair, for appearances’s sake, the worker asks about Jesus’s hair. “Jesus didn’t have our neighbors,” Reinke replies.

Really? Has he read the Gospels?

We’re treated to heavily edited scenes wherein Concordia Lutheran members voice their concerns: yes, they know they’re supposed to act like good Christians and all that, but none of these guys are invested in the community, in Williston—or Concordia, for that matter. They’re there until they make their money and then they’re gone. Many of these guys have criminal backgrounds—and even Pastor Reinke admits that crime has spiked over the period the Overnighters program has been in session. Many of the workers are disrespectful of the church, half sleeping through services and leaving garbage about. Good, long-term members are leaving Concordia while Reinke is doing his pastoral best to meet the needs of every stranger who comes knocking on his door. Even Reinke’s family is onboard: his wife, Andrea, and four kids are all extremely supportive of the pastor’s efforts, even though in quieter moments you can see the toll it is taking.

One positive press report of the Overnighter’s program had this:

When they arrive, Reinke gives them the same message:

“I’ll say, ‘I need to tell you that you are a gift. You’re a gift to us. You’re a gift to Williston. Welcome,’ ” Reinke said. “Sometimes men have just started to cry. They have been so alone, they’ve just really suffered. And they haven’t felt welcomed.”

The number of guests sleeping on cots or on the church floor peaked at 54 in one night. Reinke aims to keep it in the 30s, but sometimes it’s tough.

Last week, the church already had more than 40 people registered, but then a pregnant woman who was two weeks from her due date arrived with nowhere to sleep but her car.

“How do you say no to a pregnant woman?” Reinke asked.

Reinke often gets creative rather than turn people away. Last week, the church library where women sleep was full, so Reinke brought his family’s Chevy Lumina to the church parking lot and let two women sleep inside. In other cases, he has allowed people to sleep inside his 15-passenger van.

Guests are allowed access to the building no earlier than 9 p.m. unless they’re part of a Bible study. Doors lock at 11 p.m., and everyone needs to be out of the building and parking lots by 8 a.m. They also take turns doing cleaning chores each morning.

The church keeps records of all of the people who stay in the building and does background checks. If someone breaks the rules, such as drinking alcohol, Reinke asks them to leave.

“There’s people that we have to kick out,” Reinke said. “That’s hard, that’s really hard, but we have to.”

Alas, Reinke must contend with a less-than-positive representative of the Fourth Estate, the Williston Herald, which has been running a series of critical reports about the exact nature of some of these laborers’ crimes. There are sex offenders among them. To make matters worse, Reinke, in order to protect one such offender from abuse after the paper prints his name, takes him into his own home. A reporter dogs Reinke on the street one day, attempting to wrench a response as to whether the pastor is fully aware of these people’s backgrounds. Reinke literally runs from the journalist—but we catch up with the pastor in his basement, surrounded by his family and the offender in question, “Chris Woods.” (Those scare quotes are there for a reason.) Woods’s offense, according to Reinke, was having had sex with his 16-year-old girlfriend when he, Woods, was 18. Reinke is pained that this has branded him as some kind of predator whom the community, inflamed by a supposedly tabloidy press, now fear.

The pressure mounts on Reinke regarding the housing of sex offenders, and he is forced to push one off church property altogether. This guy, who previously seemed quite frank about his past albeit eager for a new start, laces into Reinke: “You brought me really close, pastor, and then you pulled your crap. You’re egotistic. You lie to the congregation. You lie by deceit. You’re not a very good role model. You’re a heckuva good teacher when you stand up there on the podium and talk. As far as watchin’ you and how you live your life, I want no part of it and I want no part of your god. You come in here—you’re my accuser, you’re my judge. You’re my enemy. That’s how I feel.”

So within a matter of a few hundred feet of film, Reinke has gone from a Christ-like figure of supernatural generosity and forebearance to Satan—literally, the Accuser.

But something was just off about that scene. This seemed to me ludicrously cruel—especially coming from a convicted felon and sex criminal. We see Reinke pouring himself out for these guys, and I have no reason to doubt that was all factual. Yet some of them turn out to be monumentally, not only ungrateful, but even spiteful. Either something else is going on with this pastor that the cameras has not shown us, or someone who should have been thankful for the aid he was given gratis deserves a good kick in the head.

It becomes obvious, however, about an hour into The Overnighters that there are as many gaping holes in this story as there are underemployed workers. One scene shows Reinke bawling out “Woods” for withholding information about his sex-offender status from potential employers, who find out his record anyway, making it seem as if Reinke, too, is part of some cover-up. Pot meet kettle.

Where are the other churches? To whom does Reinke turn for support or help? The district president shows up in one scene to hear out some of the congregants’ complaints—for example, once the homeless and again-unemployed move on from this community, having scared away many good members of the church, what will be left of Concordia? No answer is given, and the district president doesn’t seem to have accomplished much (try and suppress your surprise)—but again, we’re given snapshots, nibbles of conversations. Are all these workers out of luck, or have any of them found work? One guy has to return home to Wisconsin after a car accident, and bemoans the fact that he won’t be able to make the kind of money he was making in Williston once he’s back in the Cheesy State. We hear one poor soul lament having to return home even though he was finally making enough money to send back to his wife so she could begin preparing for a new baby. This influx of cash had filled him with a momentary flush of self-worth. But the wife can’t stand being alone, and has stopped responding to calls. “I came out here to save my family and it’s probably gonna cost me my family,” he says.

How long does the average overnighter stay at Concordia? And what about those who do find work: are they asked to chip in to help with added expenses at the church?

The Williston Planning and Zoning department finally drops the hammer on Reinke and orders him to stop the Overnighters program within 30 days. To house, however temporarily, the number of people Concordia is attempting to accommodate demands that a slew of regulations be adhered to—from the commonsensical and sanitary (showers) to the absurd (handicap accessibility—what?).

I was able to freeze the shot of the Planning and Zoning letter in Reinke’s hands: the possibility of meeting all necessary requirements was being held open—but it would require the help of an architect. In other words, Concordia, with its now shrinking congregation, would have to foot the bill for some kind of homeless facility.

Reinke, a beaten man, finally asks, “Are we even a community?” A question no doubt intended to evoke Jesus’s response to the question “Who is my neighbor?” As Reinke tearfully tells his overnighters that they must leave, one guy laments how poorly they’ve been treated by the community at large, as if they’re a bunch of homeless bums. “I’m not homeless. I have a home in Kentucky. I just want a better life.”

But how much can one church—and from the perspective of this film, one man—do without wreaking unintended havoc? What responsibility does a pastor have to his wife and children and the well-being—mental as well as physical—of his parishioners? Yes, some having entertained strangers have in fact been in the company of angels, but not many, I bet.

What could have been a fascinating look at the effects of an oil boom on a small town unequipped to handle the extraordinary influx of workers who want to make as much money as they can as long as they can without much forethought as to the short-term consequences is turned into a film about one man’s struggle with his inner demons. At first we’re lead to believe it’s about a good Lutheran pastor trying to do the good Lutheran thing: pouring himself out for his neighbor in the face of all manner of opposition. But by film’s end, it’s about something entirely different.

Reinke regrets neglecting “the community I was given in my family,” a bit of self-laceration to which the pastor is given from time to time in his narrated monologues. He begins to talk about the distance between the private “me” and the public “me”—”and I can believe the public ‘me’ because it looks very good. But the private ‘me’ has become something else. This is a hard thing to say, but in my life I have struggled with same-sex attraction. And I have acted on that.”

Boom.

Now imagine you didn’t already know this. I did, owing to all the publicity surrounding the film. What are we to think about it? Why did the filmmakers think this was relevant to the story about the Overnighters program?

I immediately thought about Reinke’s long-suffering wife, Andrea. He reveals his secret life to his wife on camera in what looks to be some crappy food court somewhere. (A deliberate choice on Reinke’s part, so there would be no previous “happy memories” of the place that would be forever tarnished. Always thoughtful, that guy.) Turns out, Reinke was being blackmailed, hence the confession. Andrea is reduced to sobs, her face buried in her hands.

“My thoughts and desires have been soiled by sin,” Reinke intones in a letter of resignation to his congregation. “I have broken knowingly and willingly the Sixth Commandment—You shall not commit adultery.” The film’s denouement becomes one long self-flagellating confession.

“So now I’m out of a job and where the Overnighters were,” Reinke says. “I’m 57 years old and I’m not quite sure where to start.”

We’re supposed to see the irony here, and believe, perhaps, that Reinke was a better Christian for harboring his secret orientation, because it enabled him to empathize with other outsiders, men with secrets of their own. (Think of how the The Imitation Game wanted us to believe that Alan Turing single-handedly beat Hitler by breaking the Enigma code because he, Turing, was “different” and so thought differently. In fact, Turing had a lot of help from the Poles in pulling that off. I guess they were different, too. I think it’s called “genius.”)

If only the hardhearted “gotcha” press and Pharisees of Concordia had recognized that they had another Christ in their midst while they had the chance.

But would it have made any difference if Reinke had been having a long-term affair with a woman in his congregation? Would it have been as “explosive” and pregnant with deeper levels of what it means to be welcoming and accommodating? (To be fair, there is no mention made of LCMS doctrine or an attempt to paint the denomination in fundamentalist colors.)

Here’s my question for my readers: Why does a man who has this “secret,” which if revealed would prove devastating to his wife and children, as well as ruin his vocation in a conservative Lutheran church, invite a film crew into his life? In that aforementioned Rolling Stone article, Reinke says

he initially thought of Moss and his camera as no different from the dozens of other news crews that were streaming into Williston every day from around the world. “What was different was that he came back, numerous times. And Jesse was unusual in that I never thought to engage him (theologically) in the way I would other reporters. I didn’t have the ‘So what are you living for?’ conversation.” Reinke only started to get nervous when Moss started calling The Overnighters a “film” and not a documentary. “That word ‘film’ kind of scared me.”

Not enough for him to tell Moss No mas:

“Jay’s concern was that the personal stuff would overwhelm the message,” Moss explains. And indeed, there was a lot of debate at Sundance regarding whether Moss had gone too far in showing Reinke, who had some serious issues of his own, at his most vulnerable. The documentarian admits that people have been “rightly concerned” about his journalistic ethics. “There were some very raw moments in the film where I questioned the presence of the camera, and my presence. Nobody ever asked me to turn the camera off. If somebody asks me to do that, I respect that request. What was important (for me) was to go away and think about those moments and what they represent, in the film and in the lives of these people. Particularly for Jay, who had the most to lose.”

Here’s two cents toward my dime-store psychology degree, and see if you agree: Reinke wanted to make a good confession. And, American-style, in a very public way. He wanted to be rid of the cognitive dissonance between the public and the private.

When all is said and thought, The Overnighters isn’t really about the “overnighters,” or the economy, or limits to community compassion, or to what degree Christian churches should be sanctuaries outside the control of the civil government, or what to do about sex offenders in your neighborhood or gay/bisexual pastors in conservative churches (in fact, absolutely nothing is said about that last topic).

It’s all about Jay Reinke. (And if the commenter on my original post is correct, that seems to be what was bothering Concordians long before the whole “overnighters” business began.)

No documentary is 100% objective. No person is 100% objective. Funny that Reinke should have admitted to having been scared at the thought of Moss making a “film,” as opposed to a “documentary,” as if that latter denomination cordoned it off from the world of entertainment. All films, as films, are entertainments—structured, narrated, scripted even without a script—through the editing. (Two words: Michael Moore.) Who speaks and who doesn’t, who’s in and who’s left out, what information is plain, what’s hidden, what’s teased at and what you have to go digging for: these are all conscious choices. Documentary filmmakers know this, and some decide to drop the pretense and insert themselves into the frame—literally. I’m watching an HBO series right now called The Jinx—about Robert Hurst of the New York Hurst real estate empire, accused of murdering not one but three people, including his wife. The filmmaker, Andrew Jawecki, can be seen interviewing his subject. You hear his questions, so you are given some insight as to why Hurst is revealing the information he is. It’s obvious that this documentary has not only a point of view but a point: that Hurst is guilty and has literally gotten away with murder.

But as for The Overnighters, whose needs are really being served here? What did we, the audience, really learn that we couldn’t have intuited anyway and that was, well, any of our business in the first place?

There is so much information that is withheld in this thing that I did a little digging into the Williston Herald‘s online archives. Remember that sex offender Reinke allowed to stay in his home, the guy with the scare quotes in his name? Turns out that either the story he fed Reinke was a lie or Reinke himself lied:

Keith A. Graves, also known by the alias Chris Woods, faces federal charges for distribution of methamphetamine, possession of a controlled substance and an additional sex trafficking count.

Graves, 39, is being held at the Heart of American Correctional and Treatment Center in Rugby, awaiting trial. He has pleaded not guilty to five charges of sex trafficking by force and coercion and one count of obstruction.

U.S. District Court Judge Daniel L. Hovland signed an order Feb. 25, moving Graves’ trial back to June 1 in Bismarck. It was originally set to begin March 10 as a three-day trial.

Prosecutors allege that Graves told many of his potential victims that his name was Chris Woods. He is accused of beating some of his victims, forcing at least one to perform sex acts on him, and restraining a woman so another could inject her with drugs.

Graves allegedly ran a prostitution ring out of Williston-area hotels and recruited women from the Turtle Mountain Indian Reservation. One woman told authorities she earned Graves about $2,700 for five jobs.

Graves was one of the primary subjects in the documentary”The Overnighters,” which won the special jury award at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival. It followed former Lutheran pastor Jay Reinke, who opened the church and its parking lot to oil workers with nowhere to stay.

Graves is featured as a truck driver from California, who lived in the Reinke home after the Williston Herald published a list of registered sex offenders, which included Graves. In 1999, he was convicted for lewd acts with a child younger than 14. He also had a conviction in juvenile court in Los Angeles in 1990 for sexual battery, according to the North Dakota sex offender website.

Reinke attempted to distance himself from Graves after his arrest, telling The Associated Press in September that he had not spoken to Graves recently, and that he was not living in the Reinke home.

Imagine that.

Reinke, apparently, is still living at home with his wife and kids and still taking in laborers. The community has been pretty much beaten up by the whole experience, although healing at Concordia under a new pastor has begun.

Despite Rolling Stone‘s secular canonization of the Lutheran pastor, I don’t think Jay Reinke is any more the saint or any more the sinner than anyone in his congregation, anyone among the men he tried to help, anyone among the Williston community, anyone among us. Coram deo, we are all both outsiders and insiders, overnighters and mansion dwellers. No, Reinke’s problem was that he couldn’t live with the simul. He wanted to resolve the tension in this life. He wanted to relieve himself of the psychological burden, and in a very public way, so there would be no going back. But Christ alone is the mediator of that tension, until the Old Adam is dead in his grave once and for all.

In short, Reinke didn’t want to save the overnighters. He wanted to save himself.

And that never ends well.

UPDATE (8-18-15): Check out this interview with Jay Reinke over at the Christ Hold Fast site. “Unborn children are today’s overnighters.” I wonder now if my final assessment was unfair, born more of the film’s narrative arc, elisions, and agenda than what was really going on in the heart and soul of Jay Reinke. Who can know such things? Certainly not me. It does make me wonder how much of my critical writing is an attempt to create a narrative arc of my own, to bring home a presupposed point or theme, to be a good piece of writing rather than an accurate and precise analysis of what’s in front of me. Manipulation responding to manipulation. Mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.

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