Scenes from a Parish

December 29, 2009


James Rutenbeck


About the Documentary

Lawrence, Massachusetts is a New England textile town that was founded by Irish immigrants fleeing the Great Potato Famine. Subsequent waves of immigrants from Germany, Italy, Eastern Europe, and Canada flooded in through the decades, providing labor for the wool mills scattered around town and earning Lawrence the nickname “Immigrant City.”

Today, the mills are closed and textile jobs have moved overseas, leaving Lawrence one of the poorest municipalities in the United States. The primarily Irish enclave of South Lawrence is aging as the younger generation leaves for better economic opportunities.

Still, Lawrence’s reputation as a welcoming place for newcomers has attracted another wave of immigrants: mostly younger people from the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico. Their music fills the streets, their language is spoken in schools and churches, and their businesses are filling the previously shuttered storefronts of the economically stressed downtown.

James Rutenbeck’s film Scenes from a Parish looks at issues of community, tolerance and immigration from the perspective of a Catholic priest who is trying to hold his disparate congregation together.

Underpinning Scenes from a Parish is the idea of home and belonging, something deeper than simple matter of ethnicity. The film suggests that change can be unsettling — and even frightening — no matter what our histories or values might be. It may bring out the best or the worst in us, and prompts us to consider our better natures and how can overcome our fear of the unfamiliar.

The Filmmaker

James Rutenbeck
Rutenbeck’s films explore the lives of unemployed coal miners, small farmers and itinerant evangelists. Raise the Dead portrays the lives of preachers practicing a grassroots tradition in the shadow of televangelism. In 2000, the hour-long documentary was the only U.S. film selected for competition at Cinema du Reel and was awarded Best Independent Film at the New England Film Festival. His 1989 film, Losing Ground, also a Cinema du Reel selection, is a psychological portrait of an Iowa family facing the loss of a family farm. His first film, Company Town (1984), is a meditation on the past and present in an Appalachian coal town.

Rutenbeck’s body of work was featured at the 2003 Robert Flaherty International Film Seminar. His films have also been programmed at the Museum of Fine Arts and Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston, MoMA, National Gallery, DoubleTake Documentary Film Festival, Margaret Mead Film and Video Festival, Lussas International Film Festival, Black Maria and others.

In January 2009 Rutenbeck was a recipient of the duPont Columbia University Award for his work as producer and director of “Not Just a Paycheck,” a half-hour episode of the PBS series Unnatural Causes, about health disparities in the United States. “Not Just A Paycheck” examines the health consequences of the loss of 3,000 jobs in a rural Michigan county.

Editing credits include over 50 films for PBS, BBC, Channel Four (UK), Discovery Channel and Showtime. They include the 2008 ALMA award-winning Roberto Clemente for American Experience, the Emmy award-winning Siamese Twins for NOVA and the groundbreaking People of the Shining Path for Britain’s Channel Four. These films have also won Peabody, duPont and other honors and awards. Rutenbeck was also a consulting editor on the recent independent feature American Wake.

Rutenbeck was awarded a 2007 Sundance Institute Documentary Fund grant and is a three-time recipient of artist fellowships from the Massachusetts Cultural Council. He has received humanities grants from the Southern Humanities Media Fund and numerous state humanities councils. He received a master’s of science in visual arts from Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1984, where he studied filmmaking with cinema-verité pioneer Richard Leacock.


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