Bay Area filmmaker Jesse Moss talks about his 2014 Sundance-award winning documentary “The Overnighters,” a compelling portrait of Jay Reinke, a Lutheran pastor in Williston, N.D., who opened his church to homeless people who came to the town in search of work. The film airs on PBS’ “POV” at 10 p.m. Monday on KQED-Channel 9.
How did you get started making “The Overnighters”?
I was fascinated by the story of the North Dakota oil boom, and I read an online column in the Williston Herald that Jay had written. He talked about welcoming people to North Dakota, and how town residents didn’t agree with him. Then we talked on the phone, and he said people were sleeping in his church. That was the impetus to go there.
Then what happened?
I started filming immediately. The camera was like a cathartic tool for me. In some ways, I went there for similar reasons as others, looking for something I couldn’t define – even though I wasn’t in as dire circumstances as so many of the men, who had no options, were.
What was it like at the church?
It was an unusual environment. These grown men, tough guys, were open and trying to connect with each other; at the same time, scared about whether they could find work. Some had done time in prison, were carrying burdens and looking for rebirth.
What drew you to the pastor as a subject?
Jay was a very interesting, complicated, compassionate human being risking almost everything in his life to help people, to make the choice to love his neighbor.
Can you comment on when Jay invites a sex offender to sleep at his home?
It was among five or six scenes that blew my mind. Jay told me there was a man in the church parking lot, who he couldn’t let sleep there, and said, “I’m going to ask him to stay with me.” It speaks to how volatile people’s lives were, and how things were intensifying.
How did you get your subjects to be natural?
You form relationships with the people you’re filming. They’re always aware of the camera, but you rely on the trust they have in you – and luck. Jay and I had very good communication. I think he drew strength from my presence.
Did you see the movie’s surprise ending coming?
There’s so much to Jay. He’s a good Christian, but something smoldering beneath the surface kept me coming back. Like everybody else, he carried burdens. I considered privately what they might be.
What’s next for you?
I’m having fun working on a film about Burt Reynolds in the 1970s.