Dreams of Daraa

Los Angeles, California | Film Feature


Reilly Dowd

1 Campaigns | California, United States

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Learn More: www.dreamsofdaraa.com

About The Project

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The Story


Two years ago, I was given the unique opportunity to follow a clown troupe from Red Noses International on their first mission to Jordan. I went with them into Zaatari Refugee Camp with only a vague idea that I wanted to tell a positive story about the transformative power of laughter. I had no idea where this quest would take me, but my central question was this: Can there be happiness—or hope—for those who much of the world has forgotten? And are clowns just a momentary distraction, or can they open doors to something more meaningful—maybe even lasting?



I was the most skeptical of all. But I know, that by nature, laughter has no borders. It is the shortest distance between two people. As silly as it might sound, it leads to both understanding and compassion. These are the two things much of the world needs in order to tackle our growing, and global, refugee crisis.


Here is our story: Amidst the collateral damage of Syria’s bloody war, The Language of Laughter documents a transformative friendship between two young women from completely different walks of life. Their story begins in January 2015 inside Jordan’s Zaatari Refugee Camp, a sprawling tent city situated just a few miles from the Syrian border. It’s Ground Zero for what the United Nations now deems the world’s most “dramatic humanitarian crisis.”



When we first meet Hanadi, 26, she’s just one of more than 100,000 refugees who call Zaatari home. The film begins with a harrowing account of her escape from Syria. Hanadi lost everything—her education, her home, and she’s convinced, her happiness. Her father passed away when they arrived in the camp, and her mother returned to Syria shortly thereafter. With her husband missing, she’s raising three girls alone—worried they will never have a home or a chance.



We meet Timea, 27, in a very different place—her gritty and bitter cold hometown of Komarno, Slovakia. She calls herself a “clown doctor,” one of eight hospital clowns handpicked by Vienna-based NGO Red Noses International to embark on the first “Emergency Smile” mission in the Middle East—spreading laughter to Syrian refugees. Timea begins her journey convinced that happiness is a decision and that laughter can heal all wounds, even those of war. For her, clowning presents the opportunity to live in the present moment—a state of pure joy.



Timea meets Hanadi and her three daughters after one of the first clown shows in the camp. Hanadi works as a volunteer looking after children in the Mercy Corps youth area, the same place where the clowns were set to perform a series of shows. Hanadi is immediately dismissive of the clowns, convinced they are just another group of foreign do-gooders passing through.


As the clown troupe returns to Zaatari day after day, Timea becomes increasingly curious about Hanadi, and camp life beyond the view from the car or stage.



Hanadi watches the clowns in a daze. She’s seen this act before. But Fulla, Timea’s clown character, manages to break through to Hanadi’s youngest daughter in a way that Hanadi can’t. Terrorized by war, 4-year-old Bissan becomes a child again, if only for a few minutes. Hanadi soon invites Timea into her world in the camp—meals, prayer, walks, food shopping and an emotional mix of laughter and tears.


Timea begins to unlock the woman who, at first, appeared hardened and unwilling to smile. As her story unravels, Hanadi becomes our gateway to understanding the human toll of the refugee crisis. At a time when much of the world has great fear and apprehension towards refugees, Hanadi soon gives us the side of the story we rarely see.



Timea is struck by the unequivocal love Hanadi expresses for her daughters, despite the harsh circumstances and seemingly unlivable surroundings. It’s a kind of motherly love Timea had never experienced. Seeing this, Timea decides she is no longer there to “save” people. She begins to share with Hanadi her own secrets—and an “inner war zone” that reveals why she is so driven to heal the pain of others.


As Timea returns to Slovakia, she questions her own understanding of happiness as her commitment to changing the world through laughter shifts. Hanadi is left yearning to reconnect with her family.



Six months later, we return to Jordan to capture a dramatic turn of events. Hanadi, in search of her missing husband—her place—and her purpose, makes a desperate decision to return home. Within weeks, violence erupts. She is trapped. Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of refugees are fleeing to Europe.



Both in search of a sense of belonging—and purpose—Hanadi and Timea’s human story prove there is hope amidst even the most challenging of circumstances.


You might be wondering, why is this story IMPORTANT?


There are more refugees in the world today than ever previously recorded—and more than half are children. The numbers continue to grow. Now 5 years into Syria’s civil war, nearly 12 million people have been displaced—and there is no peaceful outcome in sight.


It is the personal stories that put a human face on the statistics, and open the door for a broader conversation about a reality much of the world has tuned out. This urgent global challenge—the millions of refugees and the risk of another lost generation—deserves attention, and exploring it through a unique lens hopefully brings deeper understanding of both the problem—and the potential.




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About This Team

Director/Producer: Reilly Dowd

Reilly Dowd is a graduate of Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service, where she focused her studies on international politics and investigative journalism. During her time in Washington D.C., Reilly has worked at CNN, ABC News, Al Jazeera America, SnagFilms, The Fiscal Times as well as for former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the Obama White House.

She is currently directing and producing her first feature documentary, DREAMS OF DARAA. In bringing this film to life, Reilly was a fellow in the 2016 Studios Program of the Halcyon Arts Lab in Washington, D.C. At the intersection of art and social impact, this nine-month fellowship supports emerging artists with the bold ideas of how art and creativity can be forces for social change. Reilly is currently a fellow in the Fledgling Engagement Lab, where she is working to build a social impact campaign focused on Syrian refugee women and children.



Producer: Srdjan Stakic

Having fled to the U.S. with his family from former Yugoslavia at a young age, Srdjan is no stranger to the refugee experience. He went on to complete his doctorate in health education at Columbia University, where he was recruited by the United Nations to work on using media for social development. He executive and line-produced programming around the globe that bridged education and entertainment.  


After receiving an MFA degree from the prestigious Peter Stark Producing Program at the University of Southern California, Srdjan spent time in the Film Finance and Creative Development divisions of Universal Pictures. After that, he joined YOMYOMF, a YouTube network started by Justin Lin [FAST & FURIOUS director] as his in house line producer. Srdjan’s first feature film (executive produced with Lin) YELLOW FACE, based on a Pulitzer Prize nominated play by Tony Award-winning playwright David Henry Hwang, won the Audience Award for Best Narrative Feature at the LA Asian Pacific Film Festival.

His second feature, NEWCOMER, starring Anthony LaPaglia, premiered as the Opening Night Gala presentation at London’s Raindance Film Festival. His third movie, ST. AGATHA, directed by Darren Lynn Bousman [SAW 2-4] will screen as the centerpiece selection of the Overlook Film Festival, in New Orleans in April 2018. Additionally, Srdjan line produced two seasons of SWEEDISH DICKS, a Lionsgate half-hour comedy for Pop TV starring Peter Stormare, Johan Glans and Keanu Reeves.


In addition to his film and television work, Srdjan is a prolific commercial producer. In 2017, he won the Gold American Advertising Award for best commercial campaign.



Editor/Co-Producer: Juli Vizza

Juli Vizza is an award-winning editor and producer with nearly two decades of experience in both fiction and non-fiction filmmaking. Her films have premiered at the world’s top film festivals, including Sundance, Berlin and Tribeca and have been broadcast on PBS, Showtime, and The History Channel. She received an Emmy Award for her editing on NBC during the 2002 Winter Olympics.


In addition to her work as editor and co-producer on DREAMS OF DARAA, Juli is the editor of CIRCLES, a feature documentary following a pioneer of the restorative justice movement in Oakland, California, which will have its world premiere at HotDocs 2018. Juli is also the editor of THE WORLDS OF URSULA K. LE GUIN, which explores the life and legacy of a groundbreaking science fiction author.


In 2013, Juli co-produced and edited the feature-length documentary XMAS WITHOUT CHINA, which premiered at SXSW and has been a perennial favorite on PBS. She is also the producer of NINE TO NINETY, a documentary short about her own family struggling to come to terms with the declining health of aging grandparents. The film, co-produced by ITVS, premiered at Hot Docs, broadcast nationally on PBS, and was nominated for an IDA Award.


Prior to her work in documentary editing, Juli worked at Sony Pictures Entertainment, where she helped with global publicity for big-budget movies including THE DA VINCI CODE and QUANTUM OF SOLACE. 



Executive Producer: Joe Berlinger

Academy Award-nominated and Emmy and Peabody-winning filmmaker Joe Berlinger has been a leading voice in nonfiction film and television for two decades. Berlinger’s films include the landmark documentaries BROTHER’S KEEPER, PARADISE LOST, and METALLICA: SOME KIND OF MONSTER. CRUDE, about oil pollution in the Amazon Rainforest, won 22 human rights, environmental and film festival awards. Berlinger’s more recent films include UNDER AFRICAN SKIES, HANK: 5 YEARS FROM THE BRINK, and WHITEY: UNITED STATES OF AMERICA v. JAMES J. BULGER. Berlinger’s latest film, TONY ROBBINS: I AM NOT YOUR GURU, premiered at SXSW 2016 and was released internationally by Netflix.  He is currently directing the upcoming feature EXTREMELY WICKED, SHOCKINGLY EVIL AND VILE, which tells the story of Ted Bundy, one of America’s most prolific serial killers.


Six of Berlinger’s documentary features have premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, earning three Grand Jury Prize nominations. He has also received multiple awards from the Directors Guild of America, the National Board of Review and the Independent Spirit Awards. In addition to his feature documentary work, Berlinger, a two-time Emmy and Peabody winner (and five additional Emmy nominations), has created many hours of television as both a producer and director. Berlinger is a member of the DGA, the WGA, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences and the National Board of Review.



Executive Producer: Dana Zureikat Daoud

Dana currently serves as director of the Jordan Information Bureau at the Jordanian embassy in Washington, D.C.. Her past experience includes working in public relations, communications, as well as print and broadcast journalism. Dana previously worked for the U.S. State Department, where she helped launch Radio Sawa and Alhurra television, both publically funded stations by the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG). Prior to that she worked as an Executive Producer with Arab Radio and Television in Jerusalem and Amman and as a Reporter for the Jordan Radio and Television's News Channel. Dana also served as Press Officer for Her Majesty Queen Rania Al Abdallah. 



Director of Photography: Thierry Humeau

Thierry is the owner of Télécam Films, a full production company located in Washington DC. In the late eighties, he turned photography, a long time hobby, into a professional career working for Sigma Photo Agency in Paris. Thierry later moved to the United States and migrated to TV & Film production. He has traveled around the globe for often, difficult and challenging assignments covering wars, social conflicts, environmental and development issues. His work can be seen worldwide in award winning television programs on networks such as National Geographic TV, Al Jazeera America and Al Jazeera English.



Film Consultant: Johanna Demetrakas

Filmmaker and director Johanna Demetrakas is known for her award-winning documentaries and iconic feminist art films such as WOMANHOUSE and RIGHT OUT OF HISTORY. Most recently, Demetrakas directed CRAZY WISDOM. Demetrakas currently teaches documentary film editing at the University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts.


Film Consultant: Jennifer Arnold

Jennifer Arnold is an Emmy-nominated and award-winning writer, director, and producer working in documentary and narrative formats. Her films tackle varied subjects, from non-monogamy, to poverty, to sport in the Cold War and have premiered at prestigious festivals around the world, including four separate appearances at Sundance. Arnold has served on juries for the Sundance Documentary Film Program and has been an advisor at the Sundance labs in Utah and CNEX workshops in Asia. Her credits include acclaimed feature documentaries A SMALL ACT (HBO), THE DIPLOMAT (ESPN) and TIG (Sundance 2015).



Assistant Producer: Franklin Wall Productions

Gregory Franklin and John Wall are Managing Members of Franklin Theatrical Investors funding over 20 theatrical productions including Broadway, Off Broadway, regional theatre, film and television. Mr. Wall additionally serves as FTI Accountant.  Franklin Theatrical has produced on Broadway including; The Velocity of Autumn, Side Show, The Visit and Waitress the Musical.



Composer: Lyell Evans Roeder 

Lyell is a composer for film, keyboardist, and electronic music artist. He began playing piano as a child, variously studying jazz and classical performance and composition. Over the past decade he has scored a wide breadth of films that span documentary, narrative, political, and advertisement as well as produced and performed with his electronic duo Tigers Are Bad For Horses at a variety of festivals and events that range from SXSW in Austin, TX to the Kreeger Gallery in Washington, DC. Lyell's scores draw from his roots playing and studying jazz and classical piano, his experience writing and producing modern electronic music, and his studies of alternative narrative forms as a writer. Currently he lives in between Washington, DC and Los Angeles, CA.


Musical Contributor: Mariela Shaker

Mariela Shaker, born in 1990 in Aleppo, Syria, started playing the violin at the age of ten when she joined the Arabic Institute of Music in Aleppo. Mariela was a very active performer in Syria and took part in many festivals and concerts in Aleppo. In 2013, Mariela received a scholarship to attend Monmouth College in Illinois to study Music Performance. She applied for asylum in the United States as she was unable to return to her war-torn home in Syria. Her parents and a brother remain in Aleppo. Mariela is a member of the Knox-Galesburg Symphony Orchestra. From 2013 to 2015, she served as a concertmaster for the Monmouth College Chamber Orchestra. Mariela performed a recital at the Kennedy Center on June 20, 2015 in celebration of World Refugee Day which has been organized by UNHCR. Mariela has been recently selected as a Champion of Change for World Refugee and was honored at the White House, 2015. She will be providing original music in the film.



Cover Artist: Joel Bergner

Joel (aka Joel Artista) is a muralist/ street artist and educator whose work focuses on issues of culture, social justice, and telling the stories of those who have been ignored or misunderstood by society. Joel is currently the co-director of the international community based public arts network, the Artolution. Working primarily in spray paint, acrylic paint, stencil and mosaic, Bergner has created large public murals in many US cities as well in Brazil, the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan, Cuba, Kenya, Mozambique, Poland, Cape Verde (West Africa), El Salvador, and Peru. His mural projects often feature collaborations with human rights and youth-based organizations, most notably the International Rescue Committee, the US Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, the Boys & Girls Club, UNICEF and Amnesty International. 



Assistant Editor: Chris Cloyd

Director’s Guild of America Student Film Award recognized and internationally renowned filmmaker, Chris completed his M.F.A. from the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts. While at USC, he was awarded the Jeffery Jones Scholarship for his work on the screenplay Yasin, which screened at the Berlinale International Film Festival as well as the Dubai International Film Festival. His graduate thesis ‘coons‘ has screened in over 30 film festivals around the world including the LA Shorts Fest, the Montréal World Film Festival, and the Bilbao International Film Festival. He was awarded an Honorable Mention from the Director’s Guild of America for his work on coons. In 2010, Chris was a fellow at Film Independent’s Project: Involve.



Assistant Editor/Translator: Amir Ghonim

Born in Doha, Amir Ghonim is an Egyptian producer/director/actor with seven years of experience in the media and entertainment industry. Amir has worked for Disney International (as a lead actor and a script adaptor), Doha Film Institute (as an AP and a producer/director), Doha Tribeca Film Festival (as a producer/director), Al Rayyan TV (as a producer), and others. Working for such organizations gave Amir a wide platform to develop his creative abilities and acquire various skills that help his post as a producer/director/actor. He currently lives in Los Angeles, California.



Audio Recordist: Glen Piegari

Glen has extensive experience from sound stages to sub-Saharan run-and-gun. A partial list of his credits includes Bamazon (History), Out of the Wild: The Alaska Experiment (Discovery), Survivor (9 seasons, CBS), Doomsday Preppers, Iran and the West and the Emmy-winning film, War Dance.


Intern: Chad Davis

Originally from Indianapolis, Chad is currently studying film and social justice at Georgetown University in Washington DC. Chad’s passion for film grew out of his love for acting. He has been a part of a world champion improvisational acting team for 10 years, through which he developed a passion for directing and scene work. Chad co-leads Hoyawood at Georgetown, the club originally developed by Reilly during her time there. He is also extensively involved in programs combatting issues related to social justice, such as Back On My Feet, an organization that uses running to develop a sense of community and purpose amongst former addicts and homeless men and women.


Intern: Emily Hadley Masiel

Emily Hadley Masiel has met a host of incredible people in her work with adults with disabilities, migrant families, and people experiencing homelessness. Their strength has inspired her to get involved in issues of housing and human rights in the Syrian Refugee Crisis. She believes art and film are some of the most powerful media for inspiring large-scale change. Currently a student at Georgetown University, she is working towards her B.A. in Arabic language, and hopes to minor in Film and Media studies. 


Intern: Grace Carroll

Originally from San Francisco, CA, Grace Carroll is a student at Phillips Exeter Academy. 

Current Team