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Alumna films documentary about laughter

Liana Lum, Editor-in-Chief

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Liana Lum
News Editor

The war-torn Zaatari refugee camp on the Syrian border is an unlikely place for clowns with their bright outfits and red noses contrasting the bleak, dust-covered tents as they perform for children, bringing a rare smile to their faces.
Directed by Reilly Dowd (’08), “The Language of Laughter” is told through the lives of two women, 27-year-old Slovakian clown Timea and 26-year-old refugee and mother of three daughters Hanadi. The independent documentary film focuses on the relationship between clowns and refugees and the impact of happiness.
“The moment I heard about the Red Noses ‘Emergency Smile’ mission, I knew it was a story worth telling,” Dowd, who is currently seeking funding for editing, said. “So many people asked me, ‘Why would you risk your life for a story?’ There are endless amount of headlines about politics, terrorism and kidnappings, but we never hear about the beautiful stories or people who are impacted. With this documentary, I am trying to put a human face on the statistics.”
Red Noses International Organization typically sends “Clowndoctors” to work in European hospitals to bring laughter to the sick and suffering. Having expanded to 250 Clowndoctors located in 11 countries, the organization launched its crisis-intervention program, Emergency Smile, in 2012.
“On one end you have these clowns and the other end you have refugees, people who are suffering and in desperate need of laughter,” producer Srdjan Stakic, who worked with the U.N. for 10 years using entertainment for educational purposes, said. “This concept of providing laughter to people is very unique.”
Dowd, who worked for CNN, ABC News and Al Jazeera America after studying international politics and journalism in Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service, stayed alone in Zaatari for two weeks in October to shoot videos for a pitch. After organizing a team for her first film, she returned with a crew to the camp where they spent the month filming.
“Spending a month at the same location, you build trust, relationships that really make a difference,” head of photography Thierry Humeau, who has covered war zones and social unrest for television networks such as National Geographic and Al Jazeera, said. “Time is essence in filming a documentary, and that’s how you build a storyline and discover characters.”
More than 3 million refugees have fled war-torn Syria, and over 100,000 Syrian refugees live in the camp. Most expect to stay for only a few weeks.
“Three years later, you see people starting to accept the camp as home, pouring cement foundations and putting real hinges on their doors,” Dowd said. “At the same time, there’s just a lot of boredom in camp and not much entertainment.”
Dowd lived with Timea while the team spent most of the time filming her daily life and performances.  Other times they recorded Hanadi and her life with her daughters.
“We had a really good interview with Hanadi when Sarah, our translator and a refugee from Iraq, which none of us were really aware of, broke down,” Humeau said. “She then became a part of the film. She told Hanadi her own story and went over parts of their lives that were similar.”
Humeau describes the camera as a witness that takes the viewer through the characters’ journey.
“Over the course of the month, Hanadi and Timea began developing this incredible relationship, even though Timea speaks no Arabic,” Dowd said. “We went to Slovakia after Jordan and shot Timea doing her typical clown work in hospitals. We wanted to get a sense of her daily life in hopes of mirroring it with Hanadi’s life in the camp.”
The documentary team faced security obstacles, shooting permit approvals and increased challenges while filming in ground zero, the world’s “most dramatic humanitarian crisis,” according to the U.N.
“As a documentarian, if you really want to be honest and truthful about the story — you roll up your sleeve and go where it is,” Stakic said. “As a producer, I had to say ‘If you want to take this amazing opportunity to tell an amazing story, things are going to happen, and you’re going at your own risk.’”
Dowd said she was driving with her producer and two nongovernmental organization workers through a security checkpoint just outside of the camp when she witnessed a shooting.
“I was really surprised because you’d think in broad daylight, where there are women and children around, you wouldn’t see that,” Dowd said. “It was a sobering moment and reminder that, yes, there is an inspiring human story we are focusing on, but danger also comes with the territory of being in that part of the world.”
Communication was also a challenge with some women, according to Dowd, who hid their faces out of fear or were unable to talk because a male figure or spokesperson would be there speaking for them.
“Hanadi was unique in that she was willing to share her story and show her face on camera,” Dowd said. “Her father passed away the first day she got into camp, and her husband was arrested in Syria about three years ago, so in many respects, she is truly an independent woman.”
The crew worked closely with the NGO Mercy Corps, and some crew members report they were personally impacted by the stories they witnessed.
“There’s so much beauty in this part of the world,” Dowd said. “What we saw was an amazing amount of resilience and humanity.”
Dowd also had to keep in mind cultural sensitivities and respect cultural norms while paying attention to certain shots, the building of a story arc and worker salary.
“I’m familiar with both war and with being an immigrant, not knowing when you’ll see your family again,” Stakic, who was born in Yugoslavia and left alone for the United States when he was 16 during the first years of the war, said. “I’m complaining about how cold it is when it’s 60 degrees out while a friend I just made is living alone with her three kids, and it’s freezing out there. It puts everything in perspective and shows you what’s important.”
The film crew noticed that despite the camp’s harsh living conditions, refugees had a connection to each other on a very personal level, a lifestyle that those in the Western world do not have, according to Stakic.
“These are real people who just want to go to school or fall in love or just want the best for their kids,” Stakic said. “I hope this film will show just a glimpse of these people, who are like us but are living in different circumstances.”
Due to the film crew’s almost unlimited access to the campsite, Humeau said he believes they were able to break new ground.
“The real challenge now is editing,” Humeau said. “It’s a tedious job that takes time, and there are hundreds of ways to edit the film and tell the story, some good, some bad.”
The next step is spreading the word before post production and start applying to film festivals. Dowd has launched a Kickstarter campaign which runs until March 16 to raise $30,000. Currently $7,308 have been raised.
“This is a call to action,” Dowd said. “It’s a beautiful story that hopefully we can share with the world. But we need to raise some additional funds to make it happen.”
The war-torn Zaatari refugee camp on the Syrian border is an unlikely place for clowns with their bright outfits and red noses contrasting the bleak, dust-covered tents as they perform for children, bringing a rare smile to their faces.
Directed by Reilly Dowd (’08), “The Language of Laughter” is told through the lives of two women, 27-year-old Slovakian clown Timea and 26-year-old refugee and mother of three daughters Hanadi. The independent documentary film focuses on the relationship between clowns and refugees and the impact of happiness.
“The moment I heard about the Red Noses ‘Emergency Smile’ mission, I knew it was a story worth telling,” Dowd, who is currently seeking funding for editing, said. “So many people asked me, ‘Why would you risk your life for a story?’ There are endless amount of headlines about politics, terrorism and kidnappings, but we never hear about the beautiful stories or people who are impacted. With this documentary, I am trying to put a human face on the statistics.”
Red Noses International Organization typically sends “Clowndoctors” to work in European hospitals to bring laughter to the sick and suffering. Having expanded to 250 Clowndoctors located in 11 countries, the organization launched its crisis-intervention program, Emergency Smile, in 2012.
“On one end you have these clowns and the other end you have refugees, people who are suffering and in desperate need of laughter,” producer Srdjan Stakic, who worked with the U.N. for 10 years using entertainment for educational purposes, said. “This concept of providing laughter to people is very unique.”
Dowd, who worked for CNN, ABC News and Al Jazeera America after studying international politics and journalism in Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service, stayed alone in Zaatari for two weeks in October to shoot videos for a pitch. After organizing a team for her first film, she returned with a crew to the camp where they spent the month filming.
“Spending a month at the same location, you build trust, relationships that really make a difference,” head of photography Thierry Humeau, who has covered war zones and social unrest for television networks such as National Geographic and Al Jazeera, said. “Time is essence in filming a documentary, and that’s how you build a storyline and discover characters.”
More than 3 million refugees have fled war-torn Syria, and over 100,000 Syrian refugees live in the camp. Most expect to stay for only a few weeks.
“Three years later, you see people starting to accept the camp as home, pouring cement foundations and putting real hinges on their doors,” Dowd said. “At the same time, there’s just a lot of boredom in camp and not much entertainment.”
Dowd lived with Timea while the team spent most of the time filming her daily life and performances.  Other times they recorded Hanadi and her life with her daughters.
“We had a really good interview with Hanadi when Sarah, our translator and a refugee from Iraq, which none of us were really aware of, broke down,” Humeau said. “She then became a part of the film. She told Hanadi her own story and went over parts of their lives that were similar.”
Humeau describes the camera as a witness that takes the viewer through the characters’ journey.
“Over the course of the month, Hanadi and Timea began developing this incredible relationship, even though Timea speaks no Arabic,” Dowd said. “We went to Slovakia after Jordan and shot Timea doing her typical clown work in hospitals. We wanted to get a sense of her daily life in hopes of mirroring it with Hanadi’s life in the camp.”
The documentary team faced security obstacles, shooting permit approvals and increased challenges while filming in ground zero, the world’s “most dramatic humanitarian crisis,” according to the U.N.
“As a documentarian, if you really want to be honest and truthful about the story — you roll up your sleeve and go where it is,” Stakic said. “As a producer, I had to say ‘If you want to take this amazing opportunity to tell an amazing story, things are going to happen, and you’re going at your own risk.’”
Dowd said she was driving with her producer and two nongovernmental organization workers through a security checkpoint just outside of the camp when she witnessed a shooting.
“I was really surprised because you’d think in broad daylight, where there are women and children around, you wouldn’t see that,” Dowd said. “It was a sobering moment and reminder that, yes, there is an inspiring human story we are focusing on, but danger also comes with the territory of being in that part of the world.”
Communication was also a challenge with some women, according to Dowd, who hid their faces out of fear or were unable to talk because a male figure or spokesperson would be there speaking for them.
“Hanadi was unique in that she was willing to share her story and show her face on camera,” Dowd said. “Her father passed away the first day she got into camp, and her husband was arrested in Syria about three years ago, so in many respects, she is truly an independent woman.”
The crew worked closely with the NGO Mercy Corps, and some crew members report they were personally impacted by the stories they witnessed.
“There’s so much beauty in this part of the world,” Dowd said. “What we saw was an amazing amount of resilience and humanity.”
Dowd also had to keep in mind cultural sensitivities and respect cultural norms while paying attention to certain shots, the building of a story arc and worker salary.
“I’m familiar with both war and with being an immigrant, not knowing when you’ll see your family again,” Stakic, who was born in Yugoslavia and left alone for the United States when he was 16 during the first years of the war, said. “I’m complaining about how cold it is when it’s 60 degrees out while a friend I just made is living alone with her three kids, and it’s freezing out there. It puts everything in perspective and shows you what’s important.”
The film crew noticed that despite the camp’s harsh living conditions, refugees had a connection to each other on a very personal level, a lifestyle that those in the Western world do not have, according to Stakic.
“These are real people who just want to go to school or fall in love or just want the best for their kids,” Stakic said. “I hope this film will show just a glimpse of these people, who are like us but are living in different circumstances.”
Due to the film crew’s almost unlimited access to the campsite, Humeau said he believes they were able to break new ground.
“The real challenge now is editing,” Humeau said. “It’s a tedious job that takes time, and there are hundreds of ways to edit the film and tell the story, some good, some bad.”
The next step is spreading the word before post production and start applying to film festivals. Dowd has launched a Kickstarter campaign which runs until March 16 to raise $30,000. Currently $7,308 have been raised. “This is a call to action,” Dowd said. “It’s a beautiful story that hopefully we can share with the world. But we need to raise some additional funds to make it happen.”
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Alumna films documentary about laughter