By Gerald Schmitz

Probing human fractures behind the energy boom

The Overnighters
(U.S. 2014)
Above All Else
(U.S. 2014)

From time to time one hears government or industry boasting about Canada’s potential as an “energy superpower.” But increasing production of high-carbon sources of fossil fuels comes with a dark side. According to the Canadian government’s own reports, we are moving away from meeting the most modest climate-change targets, mainly due to growth in the oil and gas sector. Regulations to curb greenhouse gas emissions promised in 2006 have never been delivered. Meanwhile pipeline megaprojects are mired in controversy over environmental risks. Many citizens feel uneasy about the petroleum economy and petro-driven politics. In a July survey conducted for the Canada West Foundation only 20 per cent of respondents indicated trust in the energy industry.

Two new American documentaries shine a spotlight on the human fallout from an energy boom of such magnitude that the U.S. is on track to become a net petroleum exporter. That is largely the result of the exploitation of vast shale formations through improved technologies of hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” whereby water and a proprietary cocktail of chemicals are forced into seams in the rock to release the hydrocarbons. (The toxicity of some fracking chemicals and risk of groundwater contamination have raised strong concerns and led to protests and bans in some areas as explored in documentaries like Gasland and Gasland Part II.)

One of the most promising areas is the Bakken shale deposit concentrated in North Dakota and extending into Montana and southeastern Saskatchewan. (Bakken crude was in the rail cars that overturned and exploded in Lac Mégantic killing 47 people. It’s even being exported to Alberta.) North Dakota has become the second largest oil-producing state after Texas. It has the nation’s fastest growing economy and lowest unemployment rate. The hub of Williston is doubling in population every few years.

This is the setting for The Overnighters (, the most outstanding documentary I saw at Sundance where director Jesse Moss received a much-deserved jury award for intuitive filmmaking.

DOCUMENTARY PRIZE — Director Jesse Moss accepts the Sundance Film Festival special jury prize for the documentary The Overnighters. (Schmitz photo)

Moss went to Williston where he met Rev. Jay Reinke, pastor of Lutheran Concordia Church, who was reaching out to the many desperate migrants flooding into the town in search of employment and a second chance, escaping the deep recession in most of the country. But even those that find jobs face housing that is extremely expensive and scarce. Some are broken people with troubled pasts, lost souls hoping for a new start. Reinke, supported by his family, decided that the command to “love thy neighbour” meant the church could not turn away. Ministering to the needs of newcomers in distress he allowed as many as 60 “overnighters” to sleep inside the church or in their cars in the parking lot.

The continuing influx created tensions among parishioners. Just as longtime residents of Williston worried about their quiet small town losing its character, beset by congestion and crime, some members of the congregation were concerned that their church was being overrun by this tide of humanity.

Through it all Pastor Reinke remains a steadfast advocate for the migrants, including those with criminal records, in the parish council and at city hall. Moss, who lived like an overnighter inside the church for six months, captures this ministry close up and listens to the often painful stories of those arriving daily on the doorstep. Acting as his own cinematographer, the filmmaker’s immersive observational approach allows a deeply affecting intimacy to be achieved with these subjects.

Reinke becomes close to several of his overnighters, notably Paul from New York who is briefly offered a place in the family home. When Paul is asked to leave and Reinke invites Keith from Los Angeles to stay with the family, Paul is angry and resentful. It’s a situation with fateful consequences. Paul tips off the local press that Keith is a registered sex offender, and the news scandalizes some in the church and community. Reinke resigns as pastor. More devastating is a sexual indiscretion which he confides to his wife in a moment of heartbreaking poignancy.

As this extraordinary movie concludes, the overnighters program is no more. Reinke at age 57 finds himself estranged from his family, joining the ranks of the jobless looking for work in an oil-centred economy.

The moral of The Overnighters is that in our emphasis on this economy — all the metrics of production, sales, growth, jobs, construction, and those of economic and environmental costs too — we often miss the human stories. What does all this energy-fuelled activity profit a society if it diminishes our humanity?


Director John Fiege’s Above All Else (, which premiered at the South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas, where it won the jury prize, focuses on the fight waged by one man, retired high-wire gymnast David Daniel, to stop construction of part of the Keystone XL pipeline project across his quiet property containing old-growth forest in east rural Texas. The routing of this southern leg leading to the refineries on the Gulf coast has already received approval. (Only the line crossing the Canada-U.S. border still requires a green light from the Obama administration.) Still there is a strong connection to the hugely controversial tussle over Keystone as a whole. On one side is TransCanada Pipelines, its government and industry promoters; on the other a coalition of environmental organizations, local communities and affected property owners concerned about the increasing export of “dirty” tarsands oil and the risks of spills or other damage.

TransCanada has used the law of “eminent domain” to expropriate land along the pipeline route and to bully recalcitrant landowners into settlements with the threat of costly legal action. Of course the company’s sunny promotional videos, which Fiege shows by way of irony, present this as beneficial economic progress and claim to show “great respect” for people in the path of the pipeline.

Daniel describes himself as an “accidental activist” who wasn’t aroused until he found TransCanada surveyors on his property without permission. That’s just the start of a struggle to protect his forest that attracts anti-tarsands campaigners and young activists who set up a sit-in protest rigged among trees in order to stop the bulldozers. The film also relates the efforts of some of Daniel’s neighbours to prevent TransCanada’s steamroller across their land. Several travel to Washington to take part in anti-Keystone protests where they face arrest. But mainly where they live becomes the frontline.

The film is a powerful example of ordinary citizens rising up and resorting to civil disobedience when confronted by TransCanada’s devious and strong-arm tactics. As inspiring as that struggle is, this is not a happy story. The conflict takes a toll on families and protesters from outside. The corporation pushes ahead, showing it has the power to get its way.

The larger question posed by such documentaries is an ethical and democratic one. Will we control the economic juggernaut of Big Energy, standing up for fundamental values, or will we let it control us?

*Above All Else opens the 25th Ottawa One World Film Festival on Sept. 25 with director John Fiege in attendance. Press notes including the director’s statement can be downloaded from the website noted above.

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