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Every month, Utne Reader previews a selection of current and upcoming independent film and documentary releases. This sampler was curated by editor in chief Christian Williams. 


The Overnighters
Drafthouse Films
(in theaters)

To many people, the recent oil boom in western North Dakota symbolizes hope—a reminder that the American Dream is still alive and well. The sad truth, however, is that competition for the high-paying jobs that have lured men from across the country to small towns like Williston, North Dakota, has made the prospect for success a long shot for most. For those who aren’t lucky enough to find work within a few days of arriving, high rent and no vacancy force them to sleep in their cars (if they own them) and seek out what little assistance the the ill-equipped towns they fill to the brim might provide. It’s this backdrop that sets the tone for Jesse Moss’ outstanding documentary The Overnighters.

The film profiles a Williston pastor, Jay Reinke, who operates a boarding program for workers called The Overnighters in the Lutheran church he serves. While his congregation was reluctantly supportive of the idea in the beginning, the increasing influx of men to the town demonstrates that an initially temporary solution has become a lot more permanent than anyone ever expected, and Reinke finds himself in the middle of an increasingly tense situation.

Believing that every man deserves a second chance, Reinke’s trust in his fellow man proves to be both his strength and a weakness. Though these men certainly need help, Reinke lacks the facilities and the community support necessary to provide a sustainable option, and things come to a head when the criminal past of some of the men he’s helping becomes public and his own personal issues bubble to the surface. The film follows him as he tries to balance the needs of his congregation and his family with the needs of the strangers he’s committed to helping, and culminates with an ending that seems inevitable but is riveting and surprising nonetheless.

Along the way, the film also follows several men who do find work, but end up making their way back to their families for various reasons. Though they know they won’t find work that pays as well where they came from, these men discover that the prospect of fortune in the oil fields isn’t worth the strained relationships with their loved ones. As one worker laments, “It’s ironic that I came out here to save my family and it’s probably going to cost me my family.” Through the perspective of these men and Reinke, Moss offers us a powerful and heartbreaking look at the false promises and tragedies that lurk beneath the surface of the North Dakota oil boom. —Christian Williams


Awake: The Life of Yogananda
Counterpoint Films
(in theaters and VOD)

Awake: The Life of Yogananda is an unconventional biography about the Hindu Swami who brought yoga and meditation to the West in the 1920s. Paramahansa Yogananda authored the spiritual classic Autobiography of a Yogi, which has sold millions of copies worldwide and is a go-to book for seekers, philosophers and yoga enthusiasts today. (Apparently, it was the only book that Steve Jobs had on his iPad.) By personalizing his own quest for enlightenment and sharing his struggles along the path, Yogananda made ancient Vedic teachings accessible to a modern audience, attracting many followers and inspiring the millions who practice yoga today.

Filmed over three years with the participation of 30 countries around the world, the documentary examines the world of yoga, modern and ancient, east and west and explores why millions today have turned their attention inwards, bucking the limitations of the material world in pursuit of self-realization. (Distributor summary)

First Run Features
(in theaters)

In India, a group of boys dream of becoming Chess Grandmasters. But this is no ordinary chess and these are no ordinary players. Algorithms is a documentary that transports us into the little known world of Blind Chess.  

Chess is an ancient and universal game with origins in India. Filmed over three years in different parts of India, Algorithms follows three boys and an adult champion, who not only aspire to bring global recognition to India’s blind chess players, but also want to encourage all blind children to play chess. (Distributor summary)

Strange Rumblings in Shangri-La
(available now on iTunes and DVD)

Strange Rumblings In Shangri-La is a travelogue surf documentary in the vein of Endless Summer.

Shot almost entirely on Kodak Super16mm by director Joe G, the doc follows a team of surfers around the globe to surf mostly unseen spots from the frigid shores of Iceland to the sultry coastline of Mozambique. Traveling from well-known surf spots in Europe to exotic islands off the coast of Brazil and into deepest Indonesia, the ultimate question is will these surfers find their "Shangri-La." (Distributor summary)

Corpus Christi: Playing with Redemption
Breaking Glass Pictures
(available on DVD and VOD)

What if Jesus was gay? That question is explored in Corpus Christi: Playing with Redemption, a feature documentary focusing on Terrence McNally’s controversial Broadway play Corpus Christi, which imagines Jesus as a gay man living in Corpus Christi, Texas. The documentary follows the troupe, playwright, and audience around the world on a five-year journey, where voices of protest and support collide on one of the central issues facing the LGBT community: religion. (Distributor summary)

A People Uncounted: The Untold Story of the Roma
First Run Features
(available on DVD)

Journey into the world of the Roma—a people who through the ages have been both romanticized and vilified in popular culture, politics and art, and who have endured centuries of intolerance and persecution.

Visiting 11 countries and interviewing dozens of Roma artists, historians, musicians and Holocaust survivors, A People Uncounted documents their culturally rich but often difficult lives, taking us back to ancient times and forward to the little-known story of Roma genocide at the hands of Nazis during World War II. As we watch the incredible story of the Roma unfold, both the people and their history come to life through the interplay of their evocative music and poetry, interwoven with true stories told by the survivors of the camps. As intolerance is on the rise in European politics, this remarkable film reminds us that ethnic minorities all too often fall prey to racism and genocide. (Distributor summary)

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