Cinema lecturer headed to Sundance

An SF State professor's latest documentary will debut on one of the film world's biggest stages.

"The Overnighters," by new cinema Lecturer Jesse Moss, will premiere on Jan. 17 at the Sundance Film Festival in Utah. The film documents the lives and experiences of men and women who have flocked to the small town of Williston, N.D., desperate for jobs in the oil fields.

Photo of SF State cinema Lecturer Jesse Moss

Cinema lecturer Jesse Moss

"I knew there was an oil boom in North Dakota, and I was fascinated by the idea that in modern-day America there was a boomtown," Moss said. "This idea that there could still be a frontier town in America, up in North Dakota, where thousands of men were pouring in to work and it was a little wild and out of control, just seemed like a really fascinating story."

At the center of Moss' film is a pastor, Jay Reinke, who opened his church's doors to these individuals, raising the ire of the wider community, which is wary of the outsiders. Moss, a one-man production crew with little funding, lived for six months in the church with the subjects of his film, and then spent another year following them.

"There was such raw desperation that it was electrifying and incredibly moving," he said. "These were people who had left their homes and their families behind and were trying to remake themselves. That's also the American story, that story of self-invention and the belief that even today, if you have enough pluck and nerve and are willing to make the journey to the frontier, it's possible to find opportunity."

Moss runs a production company based in the Presidio with his wife, and with the exception of two small grants from the Bay Area-based Catapult Film Fund and the Sundance Documentary Fund, "The Overnighters" was what he called a "boot-strapped production."

Being selected for Sundance is amazing, Moss said, because it allows this story to be told on a powerful stage.

"I've made documentaries for a long time. It's been a very long journey and sometimes a hard journey to get to Sundance with a film, but I feel like this is the right film at the right time," he said. "It's a story where I feel like I personally took a lot of risks, creatively and financially, and it's gratifying to see them pay off."

Screenshot from the film

Pastor Jay Reinke of Concordia Lutheran Church in Williston, N.D. welcomes men who have arrived in the oil boomtown and need a place to sleep. Reinke, who allows the men to sleep in his church, calls these men "the overnighters."

Moss is a San Francisco native who grew up in the Bay Area and graduated from UC Berkeley before heading to New York, where he spent about 15 years as a documentary filmmaker. He and his family moved back to San Francisco two years ago, and his connection to SF State began when his mother enrolled in a graduate program in English. She had read an article in SF State Magazine about new cinema chair Daniel Bernardi, and Moss decided to reach out. That led to Moss' teaching a master class last year and ultimately to his teaching position this fall.

"What drew me to SF State was that there are students interested in all sorts of filmmaking," Moss said. "Although I'm primarily a documentary filmmaker, I have done some work in narrative fiction filmmaking. I felt like it would be exciting to have an environment where professors and students were interested in all aspects of cinema."

In addition to its Sundance showing, Moss hopes to screen "The Overnighters" in San Francisco during the spring as well as on campus. To learn more about the film, visit its Facebook page.

-- Jonathan Morales