Young Film Directors Highlight the People of Zaatari

Following refugee families and an aid worker fighting to keep the camp running, a new film produced by two young filmmakers and backed by Daily Show star Jon Stewart allows viewers to experience what it is like to live in Zaatari, the largest camp for Syrian refugees.

Written by William Mathis Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
FILE - Zaatari refugee camp near the Syrian border in Jordan. AP/Manu Brabo, File

“We’ve all seen the hyperbole, the polemics and the propaganda about who these refugees are and what these camps are,” Jon Stewart said before the world premiere of the film After Spring at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York on April 14. “And to see [the camp] in its most stark, human, objective form is beautiful.”

The former Daily Show host was at the festival to introduce the film, which chronicles the life of Syrians in Jordan’s Zaatari refugee camp, the largest Syrian refugee camp in the world, home to nearly 80,000 people.

Stewart viewed early footage of the film in the summer of 2014 and felt moved by what he saw. “Whoever the filmmakers were did an incredible job at presenting and humanizing the story of this camp, Zaatari, this camp I had visited,” Stewart said, recalling his reaction at the time. ”So I said, okay I’ll work with Alex Gibney or Rory Kennedy or whoever it was that did this. And then I found out it’s these two young punks.”

The “punks,” who Stewart went on to support as an executive producer of the film are first-time feature-length directors Stephanie Ching, 28, and Ellen Martinez, 28. Stewart said he had minimal involvement in the film other than to help finance the production through his production company Busboy Productions.

For Ching and Martinez, the refugee crisis in Syria struck a personal chord. Martinez lived in Damascus for four years during high school from 2002-2006 and Ching said that her grandmother used to tell stories about fleeing from Hong Kong to China as a child during World War II.

Conflict “is something that is not that distant from many of us,” Ching said during the question and answer session after the premiere at the Tribeca festival. “I feel like most people in this room probably have some connection to that as well, so that’s something we hope comes across.”

But when the crisis in Syria began, the directors said they felt that personal connection was missing from the international conversation.

“When the conflict first started all the news was politicizing everything. It wasn’t really talking about the people that had to leave,” Martinez told Syria Deeply. “That’s why we really wanted to make this movie, to show the human faces and the people that were being affected by it.”

They began doing research about the crisis in 2013 and quickly learned about Zaatari, the Middle East’s largest refugee camp and Jordan’s ninth largest city, but also one of the most well publicized. Among past visitors to the camp are world leaders like United States Secretary of State John Kerry, Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and celebrities like Angelina Jolie and Bono. Zaatari even has its own Twitter account to keep the world updated on activities there.

“Any time there was talk about Syrian refugees, Zaatari would come up,” Martinez said. “When we first read about it, [the population] was 120,000 people, when we visited it was 80,000 … that’s the size of a small city and just knowing about that many people living in a space was really interesting to us.”

The two directors traveled to Jordan twice to film the movie, for a month in March 2014 and then for two more months later that year.

In addition to documenting the stories of people’s flight from Syria, the directors spent hours simply following parents and children as they went about their daily lives trying to work, haggling with the U.N. Refugee Agency’s staff for better living accommodation and discussing when they will ever return home.

The film follows one family in particular, that of Abu Ibrahim, a construction worker and former Free Syrian Army fighter – a coalition of rebel factions originally created by Syrian army defectors fighting to overthrow the Assad government – and his two children, Ibrahim, 14, and Raghad, 13.

“We wanted to mimic our experience being there and getting the time to get to know the families,” Martinez said. “So you really do feel like ‘Oh I’m sitting with Raghad and she’s telling me about her school back in Syria as she’s painting her nails.’”

The directors, neither of whom speaks Arabic, had to rely on a series of translators to communicate with the participants. But Ching and Martinez said their silence turned out to be an asset. “I think not speaking Arabic actually helped,” Ching said. The people “could forget about the camera because we didn’t know what they were saying,” she said.

The filmmakers said their silence ultimately helped the Syrians to speak directly to the audience. “We wanted to try to get as much of their stories out as possible,” Martinez said. “We didn’t want to get anyone to speak for them.”

Ching and Martinez hope After Spring will help change the narrative about Syrian refugees in the United States, where a Quinnipiac University poll in December, 2015 showed that 51% of American voters opposed allowing any Syrian refugees into the country.

“These are people who are running away from ISIS… they’re running away from Assad, they’re running away from war,” Martinez said. “They just want to continue living their lives.”

A list of upcoming screenings of After Spring can be found on the film’s website.

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