Monday, October 13, 2014

New documentary explores the impact of itinerant workers in North Dakota oil boom

By now you have probably heard of the oil boom in North Dakota. A controversial new method of natural gas extraction has taken over and it’s called hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking” for short. See related posts here here and here. The epicenter is Williston, North Dakota. Fracking operations in North Dakota have attracted thousands of men looking for work. These men arrive poor, desperate, and often live out of their cars.

The fracking boom in North Dakota has had myriad effects on the rural countryside. It has ushered in great economic prosperity. It has minted millionaires overnight. But it has also created lasting environmental and social problems like increased drug use, crime and prostitution. The rural area does not have the infrastructure to support the sudden surge in population. The US Census Bureau estimates the population in Williston has increased from 13,000 in 2010 to 20,000 in 2013.

Opening this week is a film called The Overnighters. The film won the Special Jury Prize for Intuitive Filmmaking this year at the Sundance Film Festival. Here is the description by the film's distributor Drafthouse Films:
A modern-day Grapes of Wrath, award-winning documentary The Overnighters engages and dramatizes a set of universal societal and economic themes: the promise and limits of re-invention, redemption and compassion, as well as the tension between the moral imperative to 'love thy neighbor' and the resistance that one small community feels when confronted by a surging river of desperate, job-seeking strangers.
Director Jesse Moss said:
I went thinking I was going to make a film about oil extraction, and I’m suddenly making a film about faith and the Christian ethic and the struggles of a church to define for itself what it’s role in this community is, and what the role of the pastor in it is.
Moss filmed the documentary over a span of 16 months. He flew out to Williston and began to interview people in the community. One of those men was Pastor Jay Renike. Pastor Reinke had opened his church doors to the newcomers and gave them a place to sleep at night while they got settled into town. But not everyone in the community was on board with this plan. Over the course of the story things go awry for Pastor Reinke.

The documentary focuses on what community means in rural settings. Rural communities are close-knit where everyone knows everyone else’s business. People in rural communities also take care of their own. But does this generosity and kindness extend to strangers? As one townsperson says in the documentary “How long do we intend to support them? They have no intention of building anything here." How should a community respond to a situation like what is happening in Williston? What characteristics of rural community will shape Williston’s response? How will its response be different from that of an urban community faced with a similar situation? These are all questions I will be asking when I finally get to see this documentary.

The film has been touring the country and playing at small film festivals. This week it opened to a very limited release. I will definitely be renting it once it is released on dvd.


Ahva said...

This documentary sounds really interesting. Your comments about how the pastor's welcoming attitude toward the newcomers resulted in backlash from the rural community reminds me of what we have been talking about in our class recently -- about how sometimes, rural communities see newcomers as "others" who may be as unwelcome as immigrants, racial minorities, or people from the LGBT community.

Moreover, your post discusses how the fracking industry in North Dakota has "attracted thousands of men looking for work." I read an interesting article that, through a series of eye-opening photos, sheds light on how the fracking industry has also attracted an influx of female oil workers. The article further discusses how many females have moved to boomtowns to fill other jobs (such as waitressing) that have opened up to accommodate the sharp rise in population resulting from the influx of oil-workers. Here is the link to the article and photos:

David Gomez said...

Thank you for the link Ahva. There are so many different repercussions from the tracking boom. This piece highlighting the influx of women to the boom is great. The photos really help paint the picture.

I think this documentary fits exactly with what we have been talking about in class. What is community? How are outsiders treated?