Cinema professor’s tale of ‘broken’ and ‘desperate’ men may win big at SF International Film Fest

A cinema professor has the chance to take home $10,000 if his documentary is chosen as the winner of the Golden Gate Awards during the 57th San Francisco International Film Festival–but he says money is at the back of his mind right now.

“I am more focused on the experience of getting to show the film in San Francisco, to my hometown crowd, that I’m not thinking about the competition or the prize aspect,” said cinema professor Jesse Moss. “To me, just being in the festival is the prize.”

The festival announced the contenders last Thursday, naming Moss’ documentary, “The Overnighters,” as one of seven documentary feature films in the Golden Gate Awards category. “The Overnighters” premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, where it won the Special Jury Award for Intuitive Filmmaking.

In making “The Overnighters,” Moss traveled on his own to the small town of Williston, North Dakota, to document a group of men in search of jobs in a booming town of oil and energy production. Moss also followed the story of a pastor who opened his church to these men to allow a place to stay during their search because many had resorted to sleeping in cars.

“I think of the film as a playing out of a time with an American story of people who go to a frontier town looking for opportunity,” Moss said. “What are the realities? Do they find what they’re searching for?”

Moss first learned of the occurrences in Williston after reading an article about the pastor and taking him up on an invitation to see everything firsthand. Moss soon realized the potential of an intimate documentary involving the stories of the “overnighters.”

“They were extremely desperate and some of them were broken and they were looking for something in their lives,” Moss said. “I felt that there was an intensity and an emotional vulnerability that was compelling and drew me into the story.”

Moss said it is an honor just to be included in such a prominent festival, which runs April 24 to May 8 at the Sundance Kabuki Cinemas, Castro Theatre and New People Cinema in San Francisco, and the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley. Juries will select the winners of Moss’ category May 7.

SF Film Society’s Director of Education Joanne Parsont said the festival will also host a screening of “The Overnighters,” along with four other films during its partnership with SF State for a program called “College Days.” The program allows Bay Area college students to attend a weekend of film festival screenings and receive course credit.

Parsont said at least 100 students applied for the course, but only a select group will attend the screenings. She added that Moss will lead a Q&A session during the event.

Audrey Chang, SF Film Society’s associate programmer and Golden Gate Awards manager, said Moss’ documentary was chosen for this category because it represents the criteria of these films, which include their quality and the judges’ consensus.
“It’s a film that really resonated with all of us,” Chang said.