James Rutenbeck’s earliest films explored the lives of unemployed coal miners, small farmers and itinerant evangelists. Raise the Dead portrays the lives of holiness preachers practicing a grassroots tradition in the shadow of televangelism. The one-hour documentary was awarded "Best Independent Film" at the New England Film Festival in 2000 and was the only U.S. film selected for competition at Cinema du Reel in Paris that same year. His 1999 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 a former 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, Museum of Modern Art, National Gallery, Double Take Documentary Film Festival, Margaret Mead Film and Video Festival, Lussas International Film Festival, Black Maria and others.
His feature-length film, Scenes from a Parish, about a diverse group parishioners in a Catholic parish undergoing dramatic demographic change, premiered to critical acclaim at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston in 2009, and aired later that year on the PBS series Independent Lens. In January 2009 Rutenbeck was awarded a Du Pont Columbia Journalism Award for his work as Producer and Director of Not Just A Paycheck, an episode of the PBS series Unnatural Causes, about health disparities in the United States, co-produced by California Newsreel and Vital Pictures. Not Just A Paycheck examines the health consequences of the loss of 3000 jobs in a rural Michigan county.
Rutenbeck is currently Executive Producer of Class of '27, a series of three short films about the lives of young children in economically distressed parts of rural America. Class of '27 was fully funded by the Diversity Fund of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. The films premiered at the Independent Film Festival of Boston in 2016 and will air this September on America Reframed, a PBS World Channel documentary series.
Editing credits include over fifty films for PBS, BBC, Channel Four (UK), Discovery Channel and Showtime. They include the 2008 ALMA award-winning Roberto Clemente for American Experience, 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, du Pont-Columbia and other honors and awards.
Rutenbeck was awarded a 2007 Sundance Institute Documentary Fund grant and is a four-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 of Science in Visual Arts from Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1984, where he studied filmmaking with cinema-vérité pioneer Richard Leacock.