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Roswell patient part of YouTube's landmark film

In the video, Clayton Rutan sits upright on a hospital bed in a blue Carhartt T-shirt. His arms are folded in front of him, an ID bracelet dangling from his thin right wrist and a gold wedding band on his left ring finger.

From behind the camera, a voice asks Clayton a series of simple, straightforward questions.

"What are you most afraid of?" the voice asks.

"Dying, I guess," Rutan responds.

"What makes you the happiest?"

"Having my kids and wife around."

"What makes you laugh?"

"What makes me laugh? My son. He makes me laugh a lot."

"How?"

"Just 'cause he's so much like I used to be. He's just a character in his own self."

"If you could have one wish today, what would it be?"

"For all this to be gone."

On June 22, 2007, a date he can rattle off without an instant of hesitation, Rutan was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia at the age of 32. Since then, he and his wife, Jessica, have been making the three-hour drive to Roswell Park Cancer Institute from their rural home outside Syracuse several times a month.

Like millions of cancer patients and their families, the Rutans' lives have been completely rearranged by the disease as they wrestle with the stress of treatment and learn to deal with the ever-present specter of relapse.

Unlike millions of cancer patients struggling privately with the illness, the Rutans' story will be known nationally. An interview with the Rutans is part of "Life in a Day," a documentary assembled from hundreds of video clips shot by amateur and professional filmmakers around the world July 24, 2010.

The collaborative film, meant to provide a snapshot of life on Earth on a single day and dubbed the world's first "user-generated" documentary, was conceived and edited by Scottish director Kevin Macdonald and produced by Ridley Scott. It debuts at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, and on YouTube at 8 tonight. (See it and more about the film at www.youtube.com/lifeinaday.)

On July 23 last year, Ben Richey, Roswell Park's director of creative services, persuaded the Rutans to sit for an interview about their lives. Over the course of 90 minutes in the early morning hours of July 24, Clayton and Jessica Rutan reflected on the ups and downs of their experiences since Clayton's diagnosis. Everyone in the room shed tears, Richey said.

Richey and Roswell Park staff photographer Bill Sheff knew they had something powerful. They uploaded the footage of the visit with the Rutans to YouTube, submitted it to the "Life in a Day" producers and hoped for the best.

"A few weeks later," Richey said, "I got an e-mail from them that said, 'We love your clip and you have made it to the final 100 hours for the feature film.' "

Two weeks ago, the producers informed Richey that some part of his interview would be in the final film -- out of 81,000 clips submitted for the project.

Neither Richey nor the Rutans know how much of the interview will be included in the final 90 minutes of the film.

Seeing Clayton Rutan -- who goes by "Fudd" -- slowly open up to his interlocutor in the video, which is accessible only by a labyrinthine quest through the "Life in a Day" YouTube channel, is like watching a turtle's head slowly emerge from its shell.

In a phone interview from his home just outside Wilett, south of Syracuse, Rutan said that he had at first turned down Richey's request to interview him because of camera shyness. But when his wife brought up the idea of creating a lasting video portrait of Clayton for their two young children to have later in life, he agreed.

"I said, 'Don't you want to show our kids someday? Don't you wish you had more videos of your dad?' " Jessica said. "It was really about the kids for both of us, to just put it up and someday years down the road they can look at it and just know where we all came from."

Clayton said the toughest question Richey posed was about what a "good day" means for a cancer patient like him.

"What's a good day in a hospital? There's no good days in hospitals," Clayton said, "but a good day is when the kids come to see us and stuff."

Asked if he was excited about his participation in the project and the fact that his clip was chosen, Clayton responded with the same sort of terse but loaded response that makes the video so compelling.

"I am, now that it's done with," he said.

At the moment, Clayton's prognosis is complicated. He has had a relapse since the video was filmed and needs another stem cell transplant or other major treatment, Jessica said, but his body isn't quite strong enough to handle it right now.

To get through it, as they expressed in their interview with Richey, the Rutans try to remind themselves of the good things in their lives -- their two children, the overwhelming support of their small community, their love for each other.

And tonight at 8, when "Life in a Day" debuts, they'll have one more small reason to celebrate in a journey where those reasons have sometimes been hard to come by.

"We've been through a lot, my husband's been through a lot, and I just think that he's not so good at acknowledging how far he's come or how hard he's tried," Jessica Rutan said. "And I just think this is a good way for people to see the struggles and the reality of it. For other people to realize how hard he's worked -- and none of it's been easy."

e-mail: cdabkowski@buffnews.com

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