Osky-rooted Rooy to debut film

Photo courtesy of Robert RooyDJ “Deej” Savarese of Grinnell marches during the May 2017 commencement at Oberlin College in Ohio where he graduated Phi Beta Kappa with a double major in anthropology and creative writing. Savarese, a non-speaking autistic, co-wrote and co-produced and is the subject of the documentary “Deej” with filmmaker Robert Rooy, an Oskaloosa native. The documentary premiers at 7 p.m., Tuesday, Oct. 17 on the Iowa Public Television World Channel as part of the America Reframed series.

OSKALOOSA — A documentary filmmaker with Oskaloosa roots will have his latest work premiere on Tuesday night, Oct. 17.

Robert Rooy’s documentary “Deej” will premiere locally on the Iowa Public Television World channel at 7 p.m., Tuesday as part of the America Reframed series.

“Deej” is the story of Grinnell native DJ “Deej” Savarese, a gifted young writer and advocate for nonspeaking autistics. Savarese himself is also a nonspeaking autistic.

Rooy said the idea for the film first came when he heard an interview with DJ’s father, Ralph Savarese on National Public Radio.

“He had written a book about his adopted son’s early life,” Rooy said.

Just a week after hearing the interview, Rooy was back in Iowa visiting family and friends.

“Impulsively, I looked [the Savarese family] up in Grinnell,” Rooy said.

DJ is unable to speak for himself. He communicates by typing on a text-to-voice synthesizer, and his parents adopted him out of foster care.

“When he was still in foster care, he was just dropped off at school and kept there during the day,” Rooy said. “It was more like a day care. There was nothing challenging, and there was not teaching.”

After being adopted by the Savarese family, DJ began attending school in Grinnell. At his parents’ insistence, he was “mainstreamed” into regular classes. DJ graduated from Grinnell High School and enrolled in Oberlin College in Ohio.

In a personal statement included with the film’s press kit, DJ said, “I won the lottery when my parents adopted me from foster care; I won it again when they included me in regular education. Now, I seek to help kids much less fortunate than I by showing people what a nonspeaking student with autism can do.”

Rooy and DJ shared editorial control of the film, but Rooy said that DJ wanted to send the message that “Inclusion shouldn’t be a lottery.”

“He feels his life could have been a waste if no one had faith in his ability to succeed,” Rooy said.

Another message of the film is that of “presumed competence” of non-speaking autistic people.

“We need to presume there is a thinking person who is competent,” Rooy said. “This film is about how faith in his competence pays off. DJ is motivated to make sure other non-speaking kids get the benefit of the doubt.”

Rooy calls the film a “coming of age story.”

“It showcases a young man’s heroic mission to overcome challenges with the loving support of his parents, his devoted extended family, and a community of close friends,” Rooy said. “The film reveals what it takes to make the goals of inclusion and disability rights a reality.”

In May, DJ graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Oberlin with a double major in anthropology and creative writing. The film features four of his original poems set to animation.

Rooy grew up on a farm southeast of Oskaloosa. He is now based in Frederick, Md.

— Herald Staff Writer James Jennings can be reached via email at jjennings@oskyherald.com or on Twitter @OskyJames.