By James Rutenbeck

I set out five + years ago to make inVISIBLE, a nonfiction film about students in the Dorchester Clemente Course, a yearlong tuition-free night course in the humanities for people living around the poverty line. I came with good intentions: to be an empathetic witness and observer. The film narrative would, I imagined, be framed around the personal transformation of the students.

I hadn’t really considered my limitations as a middle-class white man who, despite thirty years of filmmaking experience, wasn’t prepared for what I would experience. My empathy came to feel irrelevant in face of larger structures revealed in housing court, welfare agencies, and city hall conference rooms. I winced when I heard the traumatic stories of some of the women I met.

As I continued to engage with Kafi and Carl, the film’s two central characters, they pointed out my blind spots and suggested I make myself vulnerable as they had for me. They asked me what I was thinking, for example, when Tolga told you about her son Jordon, who was murdered while sitting on his bed while she was cooking dinner?

The FSC screening in October led me to question the rough cut’s “stand and deliver” narrative and the happy ending I had constructed for Carl, who started taking courses at Harvard last fall. For Carl, being at Harvard was not a resolution but the start of new complications.  For people on the losing end of Boston’s gaping wealth disparity gap, life is endlessly complicated; there are fits and starts and not all of them are happy.

I recognized Kafi and Carl’s contributions, and they are contractually producers sharing revenues from the film’s distribution. We locked picture in January and are submitting to festivals. inVISIBLE will have a week-long theatrical run at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, in May.

About James Rutenbeck

James Rutenbeck’s nonfiction films have screened at various forums including Cinema du Reel, Museum of Modern Art, National Gallery, Flaherty Film Seminar and Margaret Mead Film & Video Festival.  James is a two-time recipient of the Alfred I. duPont Journalism Award for his work as episodic producer of the PBS series Unnatural Causes and Class of ’27, three short films about children in rural America, which he executive produced, directed and edited.  Class of ’27 is streaming as an Editor’s Pick at The Atlantic. His film Scenes from a Parish aired on the PBS series Independent Lens in 2009, after premiering to critical acclaim at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. James’ films have been supported by Sundance Documentary Fund, LEF Moving Image Fund, Southern Humanities Media Fund and Corporation for Public Broadcasting. James’ editing credits include Zoot Suit Riots, Jimmy Carter and Roberto Clemente for the PBS strand American Experience and the Peabody Award-winning DEEJ for Independent Lens. James studied filmmaking with Richard Leacock at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.