Does anything exist beyond what I can see with my own eyes? “The Overnighters” as an illustration.



(Lousy photos by James Ulvog of a man camp. This small facility is in a small city between Williston and Minot. There are a lot of these man camps around Western North Dakota that provide basic sleeping and dining facilities. They are all full. Sorry I don’t have pictures of the many that I’ve seen which are far larger than this one.)


Just one aspect of the brilliance of Jesse Moss’s movie “The Overnighters” is that the nuance and subtlety in it creates a springboard for so many discussions. It also serves as a Rorschach test to reveal the worldview of those watching the movie.

One core question forces its way into view after looking at reactions by viewers. A few ways to describe the issue:

  • Does anything exist beyond the limit of my vision?
  • Is there anything more to a story than what a camera can see? Beyond what people say when the camera is running?
  • Is there more to know about any issue than what a movie can cover in 102 minutes?

From reactions to the movie, many people believe the answer to those questions is a resounding “no.”

A recent tweet is the best single illustration I’ve seen I the last year of the idea that nothing exists in the story of the North Dakota oil boom beyond what is captured by the camera in this specific documentary. The comment is from a person who shows in 140 characters that he cannot imagine a world existing beyond what he can see on the screen at the moment:

“Last night’s film was the excellent #TheOvernights – this doc will save you the trip out to North Dakota to not get rich off the boom.”

One supporting illustration:

A reviewer of the movie at Amazon considers the documentary to be a complete refutation of the idea that there are huge numbers of well-paying jobs in North Dakota. The meaning of this comment is that statements by one player in the political realm making that claim are demonstrably false.

I won’t identify either person, because they are not the issue. My point is their comments are merely representative of so many comments from people who have seen the movie.

Based on the Q&A session I was able to attend and on-line interviews I’ve read, Mr. Moss struggled mightily with these questions during filming and editing. He anguished over what scenes to include in the movie. (His anguish paid off well, in my opinion.)

Reviewers of this movie have unanimously assumed the answer to those questions is “no.”

There are so many directions to go in explaining there is more depth and breadth to the story than can be covered in an hour and a half.

For starters, keep in mind there are probably, oh, a thousand guys who have moved to Williston, succeeded, and are making a good living for every one guy you saw struggling in “The Overnighters.” Just ponder that the close of the movie said there were over 1,000 people who slept at the church while the program was running.

Yet the focus of the movie is on maybe half a dozen men who didn’t thrive. That’s fine, because the focus is intentionally on the underside of the boom, as has been mentioned by Mr. Moss during several interviews. We do need to remember the people left behind by life. There are hosts of writers, filmmakers, and journalists who do wonderful work highlighting that for us.

We also should remember those people who thrive.

With a population that has roughly doubled, there are somewhere around 13,000 or 15,000 people in just the city of Williston alone who have moved into the area and are thriving. They may not be getting rich, but they are working and living. Sounds like it is worth the trip, if you line up housing before you arrive.

The folks that moved to Williston won’t get rich. They’ll never be as well off as every person living in Malibu, West Hollywood, Silicon Valley, and Newport Beach.

Most of the new people in Williston are making more money than they’ve ever seen before. Lots of working stiffs are getting by with enough left over that they can fully support their family back home.

Just one of dozens of stories I’ve read, for which I lost the link:

One woman was sleeping on the floor of a friend’s apartment while working at a restaurant, her first waitressing job ever. She went to one of the nicest restaurants in Williston to apply for a job. Here’s the entire interview, consisting of three questions which I paraphrase:

Do you have any experience?


Do you have a black outfit, blouse, slacks, shoes?


Can you start this afternoon?


After a few shifts at the restaurant, she went home with a bunch of tips, including the first $100 bill she had ever owned. In a year she had made enough to pay off her student loans. (Um, can you do that in California? Ah, that would be no.)

Multiply that story by 10,000, then compare to the dozen guys highlighted in “The Overnighters” who for varying reasons didn’t succeed in Williston.

The answer to the question is yes, there is a huge, wide world out beyond the range of the camera. There is far more to the world than what my eyes can see.

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