F.I.L.M. of the Week (February 18, 2016)

18 02 2016

The Overnighters“They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us,” Donald Trump notoriously said about Mexican immigrants. “They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.” The rhetoric surrounding migrants and outsiders has reached a fever pitch of incivility and inhumanity (not to mention incorrectness) in America. The current war is being waged on two fronts – against Mexicans and other Hispanics in the south and against Syrian refugees in the east.

Jesse Moss’ gripping documentary “The Overnighters” exposes the hateful animus behind such vitriolic missives that are alarmingly becoming normalized in American culture. His document of the North Dakota oil boom and bust shows what we don’t talk about when we talk about migrants by showing how a small community reacts to an influx of out-of-state visitors. Moss captures the conversations about the urban poor stripped of racial coding and immigrants without religious intolerance.

The result is one of the most important works I have ever selected for “F.I.L.M. of the Week.” I truly cannot urge enough people to watch “The Overnighters.” (Hint: As of publication, it is currently available to stream on Netflix.)

The film is equal parts inspiring and disheartening. In an election season where people of faith will turn a blind eye to religious intolerance if a candidate professes loyalty to the Bible over the Constitution, Lutheran pastor Jay Rienke’s efforts to live out the core Christian message of loving thy neighbor take on an outsized level of importance. A great deal of down-and-out workers drive up to his state in search of paying work, only to find that such jobs have become unattainable. Rather than let them suffer, Reinke opens the doors of his church in Williston, North Dakota, to help house and support these men.

But, of course, many in his community choose not to see his charity as providing any help. Motivated by fear, they impugn his aid as promoting indigence and vagrancy. The people of the town prove extremely hesitant to provide any sort of hand to these defeated jobseekers, hoping that maybe these migrant workers will just leave so that Williston can maintain some semblance of “home” to them. Change that is not wholly positive for them is just not a change they are interested in making.

Reinke calls the migrant workers “a gift” while also acknowledging “a burden that comes along with it.” The back half of the film just becomes devastating to watch as that burden begins to subsume him. Rather than substantively debate what the community’s role should be in helping the helpless, the townspeople deploy small points and broad labels to divert attention away from addressing the real issues. (Sound familiar?) The betrayal of Williston and the fall from grace make for a literary-like American tragedy unfolding in real life. And anyone who watches “The Overnighters” ought to work their hardest to make sure that Moss’ film does not become an allegory for our nation as a whole in 2016.

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