Alumna Brings Viewers Inside Syrian Refugee Camp Through Documentary Filmmaking

Reilly Dowd

July 26, 2016 by Matthew Raab

Reilly Dowd (SFS’13) came to Georgetown searching for a way to explore the intersection between storytelling and international politics. A Culture and Politics major who focused on documentary filmmaking and investigative journalism during her time on the Hilltop, Dowd is now in the process of making her own documentary on the front lines of the refugee crisis in Syria, harnessing what she feels was critical experience at Georgetown to make that career possible.

“The Culture and Politics major was perfect because it allowed me to have 5 core classes in a focus of my choice. I knew I was drawn to documentary film and investigative journalism, so I was able to tailor my curriculum,” Dowd said.  “In a lot of ways, what I’m doing today is exactly what I was studying at SFS—but now, it’s just playing out in the real world.”

Reilly Dowd graduation

Reilly Dowd after Commencement with her brother, Patrick Dowd (SFS’09).

The connection between the worlds of filmmaking and international politics may not be intuitive for the average student in Washington, D.C., but Dowd has been able to bridge the two disciplines with a perspective that considers the value of creativity in conveying critical measures. That perspective began to germinate during courses at Georgetown, where she found professors that helped guide her towards uniting her interests.

“Professor Shiloh Krupar had a big influence on me. She taught me that it was ok to be a creative person in an ultra policy and politics-focused academic program,” Dowd said. “It was in her class, ‘Theorizing Culture and Politics,’ that I began to explore the idea of becoming a documentary filmmaker.”

From there, Dowd could fine tune her interests through opportunities in politics and the media around D.C., both during and after her time at Georgetown.

“During my time in Washington D.C., I worked at CNN, ABC News, [and] Al Jazeera America, as well as for former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and in the Office of Presidential Correspondence of the Obama White House,” she said. “I loved working in TV news—and see myself going back there in the future.”

She ultimately reached the decision that the time was right to make her own film two years ago.

“I’ve wanted to make a documentary for years. And so one day, I just decided, why not try to do it now?”

The project that has taken shape is called “The Language of Laughter,” a film that follows the efforts of eight clowns from Vienna’s Red Noses International as they attempt to make life a little lighter for the residents of Zaatari Refugee Camp, which is the largest refugee camp in the Middle East and located near the Syrian border in Jordan. It focuses on a refugee mother of three at the camp.

“My hope is that this film will lead to more than just raising awareness about the refugee crisis,” Dowd said. “By getting an inside look into the life of a young refugee mother today, I hope viewers will be inspired to act and to think twice as [the] global debate about refugees rages on.”

The documentary, currently entering post-production, has served as another example for Dowd of the messages she can send about critical global issues.

This film project has taken me to the front lines of the refugee crisis in both the Middle East and across Europe. Seeing it first hand takes an emotional toll,” Dowd said. “We are now 5 years into Syria’s Civil War, and more than half of the country has been displaced. In order for there to be peace, there must be a dramatic poliReilly Dowd filmmakertical shift–one that is bolstered by lasting policy changes at the international level. I think the SFS helped prepare me to have an informed position on the issues surrounding the refugee crisis.

To aspiring filmmakers, Dowd sends a message of persistence. She advises young professionals to reach out to potential mentors and prepare for repeated rejection.

“Making a documentary is a series of ‘No’s’: You’re too inexperienced to direct a film. It’s too dangerous for a young American woman to go to the Syrian border. You’re not going to be able to find investors to support this,” she explained. “I think half the battle is finding a creative, scrappy, way around the Nos—at least to get to maybes.”

Buoyed by her own persistence, and aided by her experiences at Georgetown, Dowd has been able to overcome that resistance, and reflects positively on the path her education helped set her on.

“I’m so grateful I attended Georgetown. I would never be where I am today had I gone anywhere else.”