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The Making Of

Director/producer James Rutenbeck discusses his spiritual motivations for making SCENES FROM A PARISH, his struggles with funding constraints and the inspiration he draws from Cheez-Its.

Independent Lens: What impact do you hope this film will have?

James Rutenbeck: I hope SCENES FROM A PARISH will promote dialogue about race and ethnicity in communities facing demographic change. I hope it will get people from different backgrounds talking to each other and help people recognize their common humanity.

IL: What led you to make this film?

JR:Ten years ago, I experienced a strange and powerful epiphany. Roused from my sleep in the middle of the night, I was overcome by the raw love of God. I’m not the supernatural type: this vision came to a mid-career filmmaker, someone more likely to chase 16 millimeter short ends than an encounter with God.

Suddenly everyday life felt heightened. Daily routines, like breaking bread at dinner, seemed sacramental. At the market, I felt at one with the produce packers and clerks, who greeted me with wary smiles. I became a suburban mystic, elated and connected. But I was alone in my spirituality.

This film grew out of my desire to find communion with the forgotten and the marginalized. I found them in Lawrence, the poorest city in Massachusetts. During the four years of making this film, I made friends and developed relationships with people I otherwise would never have encountered, and I am a better person for that.

IL: What were some of the challenges you faced in making this film?

JR: Funding was tough. I experienced four years of nonstop anxiety about missing something.

IL: How did you gain the trust of the subjects in your film?

JR: We spent four years making this film, and I think everyone just sort of got used to us and forgot what we were doing. Many were doubtful I would ever pull this thing together.

IL: What would you have liked to include in your film that didn’t make the cut?

JR: We filmed eight-year-old Jake du Shane on his first day as altar server. Jake had clearly not paid attention during training, and he was utterly confused throughout. We mic’ed Jake, and his ongoing commentary throughout the Mass was hilarious.

IL: What has the audience response been so far?

JR: The screenings in Boston were wildly enthusiastic.

Why did you choose to present your film on public television?

JR: PBS is available to everyone and should be about everyone.

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