By Liam Bouquet
Chris Rutushin was born to Youngstown in 1976, on the edge of the steel mill collapse — a steel town without steel mills, a community once sectionalized by cultural identities, now unified by worry and doubt.
These historic events of his youth transformed Rutushin — a film director, writer, musician and cinematographer.
He used these themes of community and cultural identity to inspire his 2008 directorial debut: “Fine-Tune.”
“I’ve always been curious of culture and backgrounds,” Rutushin said. “I always wanted to know about my great grandfather. I never met him because he passed away in ‘71, but my parents would always tell me these crazy stories about when they were newlyweds and they kind of got guilted into living with him and taking care of him. That kind of became the basis for the film.”
Though Youngstown served as motivation for his work, his time spent abroad made him the artist he is today.
“When I left 21 [News], I saved up all the money I had, and I went to Europe for nine months. … I just went everywhere I could,” he said. “So I came back totally broke and in the red and I just applied to jobs all over the place — from Anchorage, Alaska, to Norfolk, Virginia, to Las Vegas. Las Vegas was the only one that expressed interest, and I was just like, ‘F–k it.’”
After sometime working as a journalist, Rutushin began to travel again. He was in Norway, stepping out from a club around 3 a.m. with several friends, when he got the news — he had won an Associated Press Award for his work on “Jeffrey’s Recipe.”
The piece would later go on to earn him a National Television Academy Pacific Southwest Chapter EMMY in 2003.
“When I was in Vegas, I ended up doing a story about a drug dealer that was down on his luck,” Rutushin said. “He discovered a love for cooking — through being in the kitchen [in prison] — and decided to turn his life around. He was contacting all of these African American head chefs across the country, especially one in California. … We ended up breaking the story before he became big, and it went to like Oprah and the Today Show. Chef Jeff Henderson.”
Rutushin said his works were inspired not just by his travels, but also the artists he has grown to love throughout his life, including Roberto Benigni, Academy Award winning actor and director; Ingmar Bergman, the preeminent Swedish avant-garde director; and Lisa Hannigan, an Irish singer and songwriter.
“I love Ingmar Bergman a lot. He is really dark, and I pay homage to him in one of my skits. When I was in college in film class, I was the only one sitting there watching ‘Wild Strawberries’ and ‘Persona’ — Persona is one of my favorite films of all time. I remember being in class and people were asleep on both sides of me,” he said. “I went to see where he was, I went to see where he is from. I went around Stockholm to see where his dad preached. … Bergman, he finds such beauty in the macabre.”
Throughout his young adult life, Rutushin worked diligently on the fledgling script for “Fine-Tune” — the story of a newlywed couple returning to Youngstown to take care of the bride’s ailing grandfather. The project finally came to life when Rutushin found a friend to review the script.
“Everybody said they would read my script and no one read my script,” he said. “She literally had it done to me the next day.”
It was time for Rutushin to move back to Youngstown.
“I don’t think any artist is fully happy with anything they do. They just move on. I am very proud of it, and very proud of the work we did,” he said. “We did the best we could with the amount of money we had.”
Rutushin said the film crew found accuracy in everything from clothes to light sockets; they even went so far as to remove cars, satellite dishes and other signs of the modern world in post-production.
“This film was not an easy thing to do. I remember coming back here and going through all the pre-production and casting everybody. Half the time, I was running the boom [microphone] while directing because audio people would quit or fall out or just do a shit job. … I literally had an hour of sleep, or maybe half an hour of sleep. These days were 16- to 18-hour days,” he said. “I miss that urgency or that mentality of anything you have to do to get it done.”
Rutushin wanted to capture the ethnic divides of the time period, as cultures living in the same space and fighting for the same job clung desperately to what made them unique.
“People were set in their ways, stuck in their community, but you moved here for the mills,” Rutushin said. “Unless you were a WASP, everyone across the board — whether you were Italian, Polish or whatever — you were all considered part of the lowest rung and you were all equal in fighting for a position in the steel mill so you could feed your family and your community. Still, some Irish-Americans didn’t like my grandfather because he was Italian.”
Rutushin, since “Fine-Tune,” has gone on to direct in reality TV; direct “Tea & Coffee,” a two-part TV series, with local celebrity Chris Yambar; and work as the cinematographer for “Saturday Scout Club,” a 2013 indie film.
As Rutushin moves forward, he still struggles with issues of identity and culture in his own work and the world around him.
Looking at modern Youngstown, he still sees reflections of the 1970s he displayed and satirized in “Fine-Tune.”
“I think there is still a massive racial divide between blacks and whites in Youngstown, but it’s mostly economic. … You have people telling their kids not to go downtown, but they are going to YSU,” he said. “You get your bubble, you come down to your bubble and you leave in your bubble. I don’t see a lot of kids from YSU heading downtown going down to bars or walking around. Ever since I was a kid, I was always intrigued with the city.”
Though Rutushin admits both Youngstown and America are more accepting, he fears America remains obsessed with the grouping of individuals.
“We are a country that is obsessed with labels. We have a very judgmental culture. I am not saying America is a bad place. I like the fact that there are so many ethnicities. … You are going to have such a rich experience through other people’s culture. Just some people aren’t really in tune to that,” he said. “We are really watered down ethnicity-wise, but we still cling to things — but we aren’t those things. Those are just echoes of the past.”
Rutushin said that in embracing other cultures, instead of deriding against them, he overcame his fears and prejudices — a technique he recommends for the residents of Youngstown.
“We traveled across the country when I was a kid, we would see the states, and we traveled to Puerto Rico and Virgin Islands. My cousins were of Cuban descent — we’re not blood related — and my uncle, he was from Cuba. He eventually left Cuba to go to Puerto Rico and made it up to Florida. I’ve always been intrigued by stuff like that,” he said. “I don’t think if I hadn’t met those people, I would have a wide of a world view. Just meeting those people brought me to those countries. … You’re no good to your community unless you go out and bring back experiences that can help shape and mold your community.”
Rutushin has returned to Youngstown where he writes music and awaits his next project, but the artist is ready to embark again — a desire that appears frequently in his work.
“Physically [I live here], mentally no. I’m not dissing my hometown, but I feel like I have really done everything I can do in this town. It has been great, and I still love the creature comfort and things like that. I still love my town, but I also love/hate my town because I picture it being so much more progressive than it is,” he said. “I almost create a world, where it is a fantasy world, because I am not in the places I want to be — whether it is Ireland or Italy or Paris.”
He said he will eventually return to his true love — traveling.
“You can’t just dream, you have to make it a reality,” Rutushin said. “You have this knowledge and urgency that this has to happen.” ▪