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Santa Fe Independent Film Festival: “The Overnighters”

90 minutes, rated PG-13, 12:30 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 19, Center for Contemporary Arts, 4 chiles

Director Jesse Moss’ searing documentary, winner of a Special Jury Award for Achievement for Intuitive Filmmaking at the Sundance Film Festival, tells of desperate men who migrate to Williston, North Dakota, to work in the oil fields. Hydraulic fracturing is seen as a get-rich-quick opportunity, even for convicted felons. The unemployed laborers arrive with hopes of starting over but have nothing to begin with, not even housing. In the aftermath of the rush to Williston, rents have tripled and quadrupled, and the new arrivals, driven by a poor economy to travel great distances for work, find themselves homeless and unable to secure jobs. Concordia Lutheran Church pastor Jay Reinke takes them in, against the wishes of the town and many in his congregation. Their ranks swell to more than 1,000 over two years, and Reinke remains committed to housing and feeding them at his church, in the parking lot, and at his home.

When city officials begin restricting the number of days the migrant workers can live in their RVs and campers, Reinke tells a town council that the new arrivals are a gift to the community. Accepting that offering is a burden, he says, but it expresses what it means to be a community and to be charitable, not merely as Christians but as human beings. The murder of a local resident is blamed on drifters and fuels the town’s fears of increased crime and stretched resources as more and more people arrive, but Reinke refuses to react with fear and implores the town to do the same. He makes his position, as well as the town’s, clear to the men so they know what they’re up against. He coaches them to maintain good, respectful relations and to be part of the community. The complaints of community members and his congregation, justified at times, are increasingly superficial. One church member complains of cellphones disrupting services and dirt soiling the pews, but the alternative is people sleeping in their cars or on the streets. As controversial as the pastor’s decision is to take them in, his actions are inspirational, giving hope to those who have none.

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Reinke, who becomes a pariah to some residents, loses members of his congregation who are angry at his refusal to end the Overnighters program, even when it’s revealed that some of the men are unregistered sex offenders. Citing health concerns, the city attempts to end the program, giving the pastor 30 days to comply with zoning ordinances. “I don’t understand how a community can just simply turn its back on people who have no place to sleep,” says Reinke. He begins to question whether he belongs in Williston when a personal secret kept from his family becomes a crisis of faith. This deeply affecting, emotionally rich documentary wrings tears of compassion and sorrow up to its heartbreaking conclusion. The Overnighters is a devastating, timely, and unforgettable film.

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