Filmmaker Jesse Moss didn't grow up going to church.
And he didn't notice the role the local pastors or priests played in the northern California college town where he was raised.
But when he wanted to tell a story about how the oil boom was straining the resources and emotions of a small North Dakota town, Moss was drawn to a Lutheran minister upsetting the community by doing his pastoral duty — providing a bed and a meal to an invasion of strangers looking for work.
"This story was so huge. The film needed a container and the pastor was in the pinch-point of these huge forces," Moss said. "I think what church provided was framework to have moral conversations about choices."
Faith is a familiar theme in film, whether they are documentaries or dramas, but the role of a pastor or priest has often been reduced to stereotypes of a self-righteous prude or a corrupt megalomaniac, said Kutter Callaway, who teaches theology and culture at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif.
In the past three years, however, Callaway has seen a shift among independent filmmakers to present a more accurate, well-developed character in religious leaders who struggle to fulfill their spiritual roles. That's the case at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival, where Moss' "Overnighters" is among a few films that portray the inner-conflicts of religious leaders as they reach out to others.
Moss' documentary tells a "Grapes of Wrath" story about thousands of people from around the world descending on the tiny town of Williston, N.D., to find work in the nearby oil fields, which have been unlocked by hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking," technology.
While researching the idea, Moss came across a column Pastor Jay Reinke had written in the local newspaper asking residents to welcome the newcomers.
"Pastor Jay was saying let’s not fear the outsiders, but welcome them and that just stood out to me, so I called him," Moss said.
Reinke invited Moss to visit the Concordia Lutheran Church, which had opened its doors and parking lot to people who needed a place to sleep and a meal at night while they hunted for jobs in the day.
Moss describes how the church started a program called the Overnighters to help men who had come to town, desperate for work, who had no place to stay.
But despite Reinke's good intentions, tensions start to boil over among residents and the congregation over transformation of their church and town.
"It was increasingly clear (Reinke) was having trouble containing this force that was the Overnighters program because the influx of people coming to find work never abated," Moss said. "It felt like a pressure cooker and the relentless flood of people caused a gradual erosion of any support he felt was in his congregation or in the community."
Two oil workers had been accused of the murder of a local school teacher before Moss arrived in April 2012 and a few months later the local newspaper identified sex offenders staying at the church and in Reinke's home.
Callaway, who served as a pastor in Colorado Springs, Colo., said it's not uncommon for a congregation or members of a community to push back when reaching out to others poses risks to themselves or their families.
"These are real, pragmatic problems that come up and the answer is not as easy as saying, 'What would Jesus do?" Callaway said.
In addition to his earnest compassion, another trait of Reinke's that impressed Moss was his constant self-assessment of whether he was doing the right thing, why was he doing it and whether he was being true to himself, his family and congregation.
"There was some mystery to motivations," Moss said. "But his healthy self-questioning to me was an indication that there was really more to him as a person, that he was really struggling with (his motives) as a person and the attendant costs on his personal life was clear."
Reinke is remarkably candid sharing his innermost thoughts with Moss about what the turn of events has done to his family and himself.
"The private me distances myself from the public me," Reinke confides. "I can believe the public me because sometimes it looks very good. But the private me has become something else."
In the drama "Calvary," also premiering at Sundance, a Catholic priest in an Irish village has his life threatened during a confession. In the days following, as Father James tends to the spiritual needs of his parishioners and visitors, he contemplates who his would-be killer could be and begins to question his own commitment to his vocation.
And in the Polish drama "Ida," an orphan raised in a convent, discovers her disturbing family history and wonders whether she is ready to take her vows to become a Catholic nun.
"Any clergy member who is being honest would say that they wrestle with fundamental issues of doubt," Callaway said. "It's not just should I care for poor people and the outcasts, but do I believe in the stuff that I am saying? That’s a real thing that is very hard to say in church contexts when you’re the leader and people are putting you on this pedestal."
The spiritual journeys and outcomes of the faith leaders in all three films are grim, graphic (in the dramatic feature films) and surprising. Callaway acknowledges that it may be disturbing for some to watch a film where spiritual leaders struggle, walk away from it all or act against their better judgment.
"I find it refreshing," he said. "I find it hopeful and a good model for anybody interested in a conversation on faith and how that impacts your life."
Different kind of priest
Callaway speculates that the reason people don't find clergy as a central character with the strengths and weaknesses of anyone else in major motion pictures is because the general audience isn't interested.
"My gut tells me it's the same problems that besets our public conversation about anything," he said. "There is no real space for thoughtful, well-rounded, moderate views to be espoused or considered because they don’t sell, they don’t make good sound bites."
John Michael McDonagh, director of "Calvary," said he wanted to portray a different kind of priest than what he had seen in other films: "I wanted to do something about a good priest ... someone trying to do good and do the right thing," he said.
Father James in "Calvary" is also widower who joined the priesthood after his wife dies and his daughter visits him after a suicide attempt.
"I chose someone who had a full life and I think that made him a better priest," McDonagh said. "Without experiences of life you can't be speaking the truth and I would think what you tell people you would be guessing most of the time."Comment on this story
Callaway said that unlike Hollywood there is more room for exploring authentic characters like a self-doubting religious leader in independent cinema, like that showcased at Sundance.
"There is an openness in independent films to seeing these people as they really are that you don’t always get in movies that just have to be profitable," he said.