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Alumna Filmmaker Captures Syrian Refugee Crisis From a New Angle

Alumna Filmmaker Captures Syrian Refugee Crisis From a New Angle

From media to politics, Reilly Dowd's '08 resume reflects her main interests, both honed during and after her time at Georgetown. It seems only natural that her first documentary film would marry the two, taking her to the front lines of the Syrian refugee crisis.

Reilly Dowd '08 attributes her love of politics and current events to her time at Convent, where she read Hardball by Chris Matthews in a class and said, "I love everything about this, I want to know more!" Reilly continued her education at Georgetown's School of Foreign Service and found ways to immerse herself in the world of politics and her other passions, storytelling and film.

In Washington D.C., Reilly held internships and jobs in politics and television news and in 2015 set out to make her first documentary film. The Language of Laughter (working title) explores the unexpected friendship of two women — a Slovakian clown and a Syrian refugee — set against the backdrop of the refugee crisis in Syria. Since the project began, Reilly has made four trips to a refugee camp on the Syrian-Jordanian border and three to Europe. The film is currently in post-production.

What was your experience at Convent?
Convent was really where I discovered my love of politics and current events. My high school teachers had a big impact on me as both a student — and a person. Ms. Padden was my freshman year English teacher. It was in her class where I began to work on my writing and storytelling skills. She was such an inspiration to me.

I also really loved my class with Ms. Kendall. I was fascinated by the debates surrounding environmental science that were happening in real time.

Briefly describe a few milestone events in your career and how you found the intersection of international politics, journalism and film.
I developed a passion for documentaries at a young age, but it wasn't until my time in Georgetown's School of Foreign Service that I began to see the power of media beyond pure entertainment.

Finding out about people — why they do what they do, how they think, whether or not they are happy — fascinates me. It is what makes me tick. The greatest gift I have been given is the opportunity to travel so young, to see how others live — and to try to understand them. I have learned a lot from cab drivers and street vendors.

I grew up in Annapolis, Paris, San Francisco, New York City and Boston sandwiched in between two brothers. My mother, a journalist, taught me the power of expression and attention to detail. My father, who was in shipping, instilled in me a love of geography. Having visited more than fifty countries, exploration has fostered in me a passion for culture and politics.

My studies in the School of Foreign Service and my college internships — first with the then Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and later in the Obama White House — gave me a strong foundation in politics and policy.

I am intrigued by what I do not know and motivated by the culture of curiosity. Seeing behind the political curtain made me want to be a journalist — and to become a better storyteller. It is what led me to spend a summer in Hollywood studying film. It is what inspired me to take initiative and start my own club at Georgetown focused around documentary as a vehicle for discussing the issues facing my generation. While in Washington D.C., I've worked at CNN, ABC News, Al Jazeera America and The Fiscal Times.

Why did you decide to make the Syrian refugee crisis the focus of your first film?
According to the UN, a refugee spends, on average, 17 years in exile. That’s nearly two decades of life in limbo.

This statistic is important to me because I’ve experienced firsthand one of its greatest problems: that it is a statistic. Numbers and trends don’t shift hearts and minds. Stories do.

Knowing this is why I set out three years ago to make a documentary about the Syrian refugee crisis. The film features a dramatic portrait of one brave young mother’s life in a refugee camp, and ultimately, her dangerous journey back to Syria in search of the one thing she holds most dear — home.

When I first met Hanadi, she had recently fled to Jordan’s Zaatari Refugee Camp, a sprawling tent city that houses over 100,000 Syrians. Having been separated from her parents and her husband, she was now alone raising her three daughters, ages 2, 3 and 4. For them, the 17-year clock had only begun ticking.

I am telling the story of just one family — of nearly 12 million people who have been displaced by the Syrian conflict. But the global refugee resettlement crisis impacts all of us, whether we realize it or not.

How do you hope audiences will respond to the film?
Ultimately, it is my hope that this film leads to not just greater awareness about the refugee crisis — but also inspires action.

I want people who might not know about refugees — or perhaps even fear refugees — to see this documentary. That's why one of the greatest strengths of our story is humor, which serves as a powerful entry point and tool to show a different reality within the camp's walls. We have come to see that laughter is truly a universal language. Stories that bind us together, rather than tear us apart, should be a priority in our increasingly complicated world.

This film is intended to humanize the headlines we are seeing about the region. Importantly, we want it to capture people's hearts in a way that inspires them to think differently about the conflict in the Middle East, as well as their own lives.

This is an intimate story with the backdrop of a historic conflict.

The refugee crisis has been at the top of global headlines for years. Indeed, the world is trying to find ways to help. But so few people get to hear from a refugee's perspective, what it is they want — and need.

The story I am telling isn't one we see on the nightly news. It isn't about President Trump. It is an intimate portrait of a young Syrian family — forced to face unimaginable decisions in search of happiness — and home.

Reilly Dowd filming "The Language of Laughter." 

What do you think you've carried with you from your Convent days while traveling the world?
I've spent the last three years pursuing my dream of becoming a documentary filmmaker. It's been the journey — and struggle — of a lifetime.

During the course of this project, I've made four trips to Jordan and three to Europe documenting the journeys of two women from completely different worlds — who both find themselves on the frontlines of the refugee crisis. For all but two of those trips, it was just me and my camera.

I think that my Convent years helped me to speak up in sometimes uncertain or even dangerous situations — and not be afraid to ask questions.

What advice would you give students hoping to pursue a career in media or film?
If you're a curious person, I can't imagine a better career than being a journalist or filmmaker. Find mentors. Ask questions. Intern as much as you can, and ask yourself if you'd like to live the life of your boss in 10 or 20 years.

What is your plan or vision for the next step in your career?
In the short term, I am working on applying for grants and raising finishing funds for post-production. I'm also beginning to look for partners to distribute the film once it is complete.

My passion is really in television news and storytelling. So my hope is to do investigative television documentaries in the coming years. I'd also like to get more involved in new forms of filmmaking, such as VR [virtual reality].

How is Convent a part of your life today?
I would say that Convent is a part of my life today through my friendships. My best friend in high school remains my best friend today.

I hadn't been back to Convent in several years, so I was thrilled to take part in the recent alumni weekend and learn from other Convent graduates from our campuses around the world. Sacred Heart has such an incredible global network.