When we last left Robert Rooy ’70, the subject of a Spark feature story in 1986, the filmmaker was working steadily in Hollywood as a first assistant director, the professional who makes certain the cameras are rolling effectively and efficiently. Rooy is still involved in filmmaking, but of a completely different kind.
For a time, Rooy continued to sign on with teams producing major motion pictures (Honeymoon in Vegas, Up Close and Personal, Thirteen Days, Minority Report, Gods and Generals) and some television projects (Lonesome Dove, Homicide, The West Wing), but the calling to use his skills to make a difference in the world grew ever stronger.
“You take a step and then another, and eventually you wind up at places you hadn’t anticipated,” he said.
Documentary productions as a volunteer for World Neighbors, a non-profit international development organization, in Nepal and Ethiopia ignited a quest to find and promote workable solutions to world poverty. Rooy described this effort as “not totally altruistic” because of the richness of capturing “dramatic encounters with amazing people” on camera. “Their devotion to their families, and the incredibly long hours they work to provide for them, is inspiring.”
“My early career was about 95 percent movies and 5 percent documentary work,” Rooy said. “By the early ’90s, that percentage was 50-50, and today it is almost all documentary.”
This shift in focus coincided with a move from California to Maryland, so Rooy, his wife, Sally, and their two children could live nearer to family. Also, many anti-poverty organizations have headquarters on the East Coast.
Since a 1990 visit to Bangladesh, a central topic in Rooy’s work has been microfinance, the strategy of extending small loans to impoverished people in developing countries—a process made famous by the Grameen Bank of Bangladesh, led by 2006 Nobel Peace Prize recipient Muhammad Yunus.
“Seeing microfinance work so well in Bangladesh revived my belief that poverty can be defeated,” said Rooy. “Development can and does work if it emphasizes empowerment and facilitation. People don’t develop people; people develop themselves if they have access to the tools they need to do this.”
In Bangladesh, the Grameen Bank begins a new microfinance account with a $75 loan, to be paid back in full and with interest within six months. The bank has a 98 percent repayment record. The strategy has spread worldwide; more than 100 million poor families now use microloans to expand small businesses.
Rooy presented these ideas as a speaker at Calvin’s January Series earlier this year, highlighting Grameen Bank and Fonkoze, an organization that empowers more than 60,000 women in Haiti.
A several-year effort culminated in a television series titled To Our Credit, which was aired on most PBS stations in the United States. “It is difficult to get PBS stations to air a broadcast about poverty, so we not only worked hard on making the film, but also on the marketing strategies to get the production aired on as many stations as possible and at watchable times,” he said.
Rooy even commissioned fabric creations from women he’d met in Bangladesh and India and sent them to PBS program offices across the country, urging the stations to tell the microfinance story to their viewers via To Our Credit: “all in all, with pretty good results.”
Since then, he has produced five additional films about this system, along with The Social Entrepreneurship Series, a 16-part DVD set that profiles leading social entrepreneurs like Grameen Bank’s Yunus.
In the future, he hopes to do more personal and longer-form documentaries. The troubled country of Haiti is high on his list. He is also collaborating with a 15-year-old boy with autism in Iowa—capturing key moments in an unusual coming-of-age story.
“Retirement is not in my lexicon,” Rooy said. “Instead, I hope to have even greater freedom to tell stories. That’s what’s so fulfilling: to tell stories of uncommon people.”
For more about Robert Rooy, visit www.rooymedia.com.
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