James Rutenbeck‘s latest film-in-progress, The Clemente Project, explores the The Clemente Course in the Humanities, a tuition-free, college-level course targeting adults from disadvantaged backgrounds. The film tells the stories of participants in Dorchester, such as Kafi Dixon, a recently evicted MBTA bus driver, and Carl Chandler, a father/grandfather/mentor in a struggling neighborhood.
James, a past awardee of MCC’s Artist Fellowships Program, has launched a crowdfunding campaign to support the project. We asked him about the film, the campaign, and his career listening to – and sharing – voices seldom heard in film.
Can you talk about the trajectory of The Clemente Project – its origins, its development, and where you hope to see it go?
I heard a Clemente graduate speak at a dinner a few years ago and I, along with everyone else in the crowd, was absolutely blown away by her. The Clemente Course in the Humanities is a rigorous, college-level night course for low-income adults in 19 cities around the world. The way she talked about how immersion in the humanities had changed her life got me thinking about the Clemente Course as a film idea. Mass Humanities came in as first funder, followed closely by the LEF Moving Image Fund, two foundations that had supported my film Scenes from a Parish. This meant we could start filming classes in Dorchester in October 2014. Over time Carl Chandler and Kafi Dixon have emerged as the kind of indelible characters one looks for in making these kinds of films. I anticipate filming and editing over the next year to continue keeping pace with Kafi and Carl’s stories.
Why are you choosing to crowdfund the project?
Mostly out of desperation – this is a tough film to pitch to funders because it’s complicated, and the outcomes are not obvious. We’ve been filming for the last eighteen months, and the characters’ stories are unfolding. We’re getting closer though, and once I have an assembly or rough cut, I’ll feel ready to approach some foundations that have supported my work in the past.
The Hatchfund goal is modest – just enough to keep us up and running at this critical moment. Every dollar will go to paying crew. That said, I’m not really comfortable with crowdfunding and don’t believe it’s a sustainable way to make films. And there’s definitely Kickstarter fatigue in the air. When the first contribution came in, my first impulse was to send Jack Cheng‘s check back to him.
I’m curious about the idea of “responsibility” as relates to the real people in your films. How does responsibility affect the way you work, at each step in the process?
I seek to give a voice to undervalued people – not unlike the Clemente model of creating a space for people to bring their life experience into a Socratic dialogue about history, philosophy and literature, or the research approach of social historians. To that end, I have to be in an honest relationship with the characters of the film. I need to understand, as best I can, how they experience the world, and that means listening closely. Not inserting myself constantly – just shutting up and listening.
I’ve realized I’m living in parallel universe with Carl and Kafi. When Kafi asked me to observe her meeting with Metropolitan Boston Housing Partnership, a meeting that could determine whether or not she would end up homeless, she told me, “This is your trip to Taiwan.”
The question of responsibility is a deep one, especially when the people you are filming are living so close to the edge. I’ve been transparent with Carl and Kafi about my intentions, and they are intelligent people who push back when they’re not comfortable with what I’m suggesting. They understand the implications of what we’re doing and have accepted the risk of becoming film characters.
That said no one ever really knows how what is recorded digitally will be shaped behind cutting room doors. This is a responsibility I don’t take lightly. What ends up on screen is my understanding of what happened, and that filter is flawed. I’m stating the obvious now.
And with this film, racial undercurrents are always present. Executive Producer Llewellyn Smith, an accomplished filmmaker and African-American who grew up in Dorchester, helps me keep perspective.
Do you maintain relationships with your films’ subjects after the films are completed?
Sometime it’s clear that the relationship was based on the heightened experience of making a film together; in other cases, it’s more than that – a lifelong friendship. Sometimes I may want to continue a relationship, but they may not. It’s a two-way street! I do have a bunch of friends, many on Facebook, from films I made many years ago.
Am I correct that you studied film at MIT? How did that experience shape your filmmaking style? Your career?
I’d learned about the MIT Film Section during a month-long seminar with Jean Rouch in 1978. It was a studio-based program – students and teachers were always heading out to shoot films, and filmmakers came from around the world to screen their films in classes and at Monday Night Screenings. For a small town Iowa kid, being part of it all was exciting and transformative. I’ve supported my family with dozens of editing and producing jobs over the years, and I wouldn’t have been able to hold onto an aesthetic that feels like my own if I hadn’t had that formative time at MIT.
I believe a non-fiction film, at least the kind we made at MIT, is an entity with a life of its own. It will reveal itself over time. You have to be patient and open to what might happen next and where it will lead you. That was a principle of Ricky Leacock’s that has stuck with me. I’m a spiritual person, and it’s how I see the world anyway. My life has been disrupted by harrowing life events that have turned out be absolutely transforming.
What, if anything, is the throughline that connects the subjects you’ve explored in your films throughout your career?
Some of the people in my films have been badly bruised by savage capitalism; others are vulnerable people who are in one way or another excluded from society. Being the father of a non-speaking autistic son has made a deep imprint on me. Twenty-six years spent with Anthony at home and out in the world, endless hours speculating about how he might be experiencing his day and being challenged later by reading his eloquent writing about his experience, have made me acutely aware of people who live as outsiders.
The films I make are all personal, but some are more political than others – The Clemente Project is inherently political, dealing as it does with poor people living in a city with the highest rate of inequality in the U.S.
What other artists, in film or otherwise, interest and inspire you?
I struggle to read but love books. I am a big fan of Marilynne Robinson, whose novel Lila played in a loop in my car for several months. As I listened over and over, it began to feel like a folk song. I’ve been reading Matthew Desmond’s Evicted, a non-fiction that feels like a novel – The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace is like that too. I also love theatre – a Steppenwolf performance of Conor McPherson’s The Seafarer from many years ago is lodged forever inside me.
I am lucky to have long-standing friendships with some remarkable artists, like the deeply committed political filmmaker John Gianvito and Rob Todd, whose experimental films place a primacy on image. I love Alexandra Anthony’s Lost in the Bewilderness and whatever Steve Ascher and Jeannie Jordan are doing. As I’ve been working on The Clemente Project, I’ve been thinking a lot about Richard Broadman, a Boston documentarian who taught me how to sync 16 mm dailies when I was his intern many years ago. Boston is a place where a deep engagement with films is on-going. I like the small town feel of the place.
What’s the most surprising response to your films you’ve ever received?
I worked on my last film (Scenes from a Parish) for five years, and when it premiered at the MFA, the press response was strong. But the festivals largely rejected the film. Every time I’d get a rejection, it felt like someone had punched me in the stomach – just an awful feeling. But being leveled over and over again was good for me. I’m not looking for approval or attention anymore. If it comes my way, that’s a nice surprise, but it feels fleeting. When I received word that Class of ’27 would be in the IFFB line up this year, I thought it was sent to the wrong filmmaker.
Making films, telling the stories of people who are voiceless is really a vocation, and the work itself, however overwhelming or uncertain it can feel at times, is the ultimately its own reward.
The Clemente Project will be crowfunding on Hatchfund through July 10, 2016.
Read James Rutenbeck in the ArtSake discussion How Does Place Impact Your Art?
James Rutenbeck (MCC Film & Video Finalist ’11) is an independent producer, editor, and filmmaker at Lost Nation Pictures. His films have been broadcasted widely and have screened at museums and festivals throughout the world. He is currently Executive Producer of Class of ’27, a series of three short films about the lives of very young children in remote parts of rural America, which will have its world premiere at the Independent Film Festival Boston April 3-May 1, 2016.