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The Overnighters | Director Jesse Moss

Attention, our audience’s and our own — it’s a valued commodity these days. We struggle to command our audience’s attention, for them to discover our work and then, once they’ve discovered it, to actually focus on it. Meanwhile, we struggle to focus our own attention, to fight our society’s weapons of mass distraction so we can not just see our work to completion but fully discover the meanings within it. What role does attention play in your work? Can you discuss an instance where you thought about some aspect of attention when it came to your film?

There were times during the production of The Overnighters that my commitment to making a feature-length documentary struck me as foolhardy and possibly outdated. In an era of 140-character speech, I had ambitions to make a film that had the complexity and narrative power of a novel.  When the film was finished, would anyone care or have the patience to devote to the story? Midway through editing, running on fumes, I had an offer from a national magazine to serialize my film in five-minute morsels to kick off their online documentary initiative. It was a tempting offer, seemingly engineered to test my commitment, and an indicator of how quickly the distribution landscape for film is changing.

As I weighed the offer, I wondered whether it was sentimental or naive to envision my work as a 90-minute film in an era of withering attention spans and ten-point lists. I thought of the films and filmmakers that inspire me, like Barbara Kopple, who work on a big canvas, painting intimate, human stories. How would great films like Harlan County USA stack up today if they were presented in bite-sized pieces? What can we demand of our audience, and what must we offer in return?

I thought of the many desperate men I met in the North Dakota oil fields, willing to sacrifice nearly everything to re-invent themselves. I watched them attempt to outrun their burdens and their bad luck. Perhaps I should let go of these ideas, but old ways die hard. If I spurned the magazine, would I, like many of these men, come home with nothing in my hands but a story to tell?

I turned down the magazine, and persevered.


[PREMIERE SCREENING: January 17 at 3:00 pm – Temple Theatre, Park City]

Sundance 2014 Responses

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