When in the late 1960s Robert Rooy ’70 first told his Iowa farm parents he was strongly considering a career in theater, his parents contacted then-Calvin chaplain Bernard Pekelder and asked him if this was something a young, Christian man could successfully pursue. “I think he said something like, ‘Yes, there is nothing in our tradition that this would go against; it all depends on the individual,’” Rooy said.
During his ensuing 40-year career, Rooy has flourished in a field where the perception is that it is difficult to have a Christian influence: filmmaking.
Upon graduating from Calvin with degrees in English and speech and an emphasis in theater, Rooy went on to Yale University School of Drama, where he earned an MFA in theater and was first introduced to the film industry.
He followed a career path to Los Angeles, where he was accepted into the Directors Guild of America Training Program, and eventually into work as a first assistant director in movies and television.
Over the years, he worked on more than 40 Hollywood productions, including Gods and Generals, Minority Report, The West Wing, The Fugitive and Lonesome Dove.
But it was his work in between each large production that most inspired him. “When I was in my 20s, I did a travel series in some of the most beautiful places in South America,” he said. “But it was also the most shocking juxtaposition of poverty and wealth I had ever experienced. There’s nothing like shooting on a beautiful beach in Rio de Janeiro with the slums only a few blocks away. You can see them, hear them, smell them. That had a big effect on me. I felt that in one way or another I had to address the inequity that I saw.
“At that time I had the naïve notion that I could build these types of issues into feature film scripts,” he said. “Once in Hollywood, I became less and less confident that this would work out.”
So, in the intervals between jobs, Rooy began volunteering his services to nonprofit organizations, making short films advocating for social justice in various areas.
In 1991, Rooy was introduced to Muhammad Yunus, Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, and his organization Grameen Bank, which works to reduce poverty in Bangladesh through microfinance. Since then, he has worked in more than 20 countries, creating dozens of broadcast and DVD programs profiling this promising strategy.
Of this work he said, “Service toward others is very strong in our family. But I confess that I also do what I do for selfish reasons—because it feels good. And I’ve connected with so many remarkable people whom I would never have met in any other way.”
It is this recognition that drew Rooy to his current project, one that he has been working on for four years.
“I’m telling the story of an uncommon teenager who has all of the challenges of a regular teenager exponentially multiplied; it’s a profile of coming of age in a pressure cooker,” said Rooy.
Rooy first heard about D.J. Savarese, a young man with autism, on a National Public Radio show. “It really intrigued me,” said Rooy. “On an impulse I got in touch with his dad; his story won my heart.”
Savarese is an intelligent, gifted person who demonstrates some typical symptoms of autism, including extreme anxiety, an inability to speak and difficulties in social interaction. He types with one finger to communicate.
“I thought autism meant a person had no wish to socially interact,” said Rooy. “That’s one of the myths that has been perpetuated in the past. I’ve learned through D.J. that he cares tremendously about other people; he’s more passionate than many neurotypical people. It’s the traffic controller in his brain that doesn’t work properly.”
Rooy has learned much more through Savarese and hopes to help dispel some myths in his film, but emphasized that it is not, per se, an educational film about autism. “More than anything, I just want to tell an intensely personal story that audiences will connect with. The educational uses will follow.”
What makes the film unique is that it is a collaborative effort with Savarese, Rooy said. “This is not just about D.J.; it’s being made in partnership with him. I consult with him on editorial decisions, and he has the right to object to anything he feels is not an accurate portrayal of autism,” he said.
“He really loves and understands me,” Savarese confirmed. “Whenever I worry about Rob not coming to film, I just remind myself that he is busy filming hopeful solutions to poverty in the world. I hope to do such meaningful work as Rob when I grow up.”
Rooy believes this work is not much different than his former international work. “It’s easy to take an egocentric approach toward development work and fail to give a voice to those you’re intending to help,” he said. “In the same way, there are a lot of well-intentioned people who fail to give autists a voice and simply view autism as a scourge. They have not viewed autists with the full potential that they may have.”
Highly supportive of the project is Ralph Savarese, D.J.’s father: “The film is of a piece with Rob’s documentary work as a whole,” he wrote, “his commitment to a better world. The clips are beautifully made AND they are spiritually and politically instructive: they have a point. … The world needs more men like Rob Rooy.”
Passionate about his work, Rooy credits Calvin for preparing him to be a lifelong learner. “Calvin equips people to be open to the exploration of new possibilities,” he said. “At Calvin I had professors who challenged me to always turn the coin over and look at the other side. It was less about arriving at conclusions and more about opening everything up to rigorous personal examination.”
When he isn’t working on a film shoot, Rooy lives in Frederick, Md., with his wife, Sally. Their daughter, Andrea, is a PhD candidate in political science at the University of Michigan. Their son, Gerrit, is a fifth-grade reading specialist at KIPP Believe College Prep, a charter school in New Orleans.