NEW YORK - Before the Syrian refugee crisis spilled across Europe, first-time feature filmmakers Ellen Martinez and Steph Ching were in Jordan's Zaatari Refugee Camp with their cameras.
There at the camp where more than 80,000 live, Martinez and Ching found a more intimate portrait of the people displaced by civil war than usually found in news reports. Their documentary, "After Spring,'' which premiered Thursday at the Tribeca Film Festival, shows the simple humanity of the refugees, most of them middle-class families just looking for safety.
"It felt even more relevant while [the European migration] was happening, to put a human face to the crisis,'' Martinez said. "It's a motivation to get these stories out there.''
Jon Stewart is the executive producer of "After Spring.'' When the former "Daily Show'' host was in Jordan shooting his 2014 directorial debut "Rosewater,'' he visited the camp and later had its manager, the United Nations' Kilian Kleinschmidt, as a guest on his program. When Martinez and Ching arrived at the camp in 2014, they learned that their local "fixer'' and driver had also driven Stewart.
They reached out to Stewart, who agreed to help them make their film based on the quality of their first batch of footage from the camp.
"So much of it is spoken of but so little of it is witnessed,'' Stewart said of the refugee experience. "Steph and Ellen did an amazing job of capturing it in a way that allows you to stand back and let the stories speak for themselves. It's not judgmental. It's not propagandized. It's not polemic. It's just existential.''
Observing camp life
Though Zaatari has been regularly visited by news organizations, "After Spring'' offers a more observational document of life in the camp. It focuses largely on a pair of families, as well as the refugees' industrious improvising of regular life — the camp's shop-lined main drag (dubbed the Champs Elysees), and a taekwondo academy run by Charles Lee.
Their stories, Ching said, hit home. Her grandmother fled Japan-controlled Hong Kong during World War II and later emigrated from China to the U.S.
"This isn't something that's happening on the other side of the world to people that are so unlike us. This is happening with every generation for regular people,'' Ching said. "I'm a direct product of people welcoming refugees.''
For Stewart, the film is an example of the kind of project he finds himself drawn to after his exit from "The Daily Show.''
"I don't miss it,'' he said of the election year, where his absence has been often lamented. He's prepping a short-form digital content project for HBO, and, with his wife, Tracey Stewart, working to open a farm sanctuary in New Jersey. He recently helped save a runaway bull in Jamaica, New York.
"Man, it's something,'' he said. "Once you're driving a 1,000-pound bull down Ninth Avenue, you go, 'Wait, what? How did I get here?' ''
Stewart, sounding happily unburdened, said he's enjoying his newfound flexibility and compares his creative work to "squeezing fruit in a supermarket and going, 'Oh, that looks interesting.' ''
Ching and Martinez's "After Spring,'' with its gentle focus on shared humanity, was one of those things.
"The easiest thing to do in these instances is focus on the extremities of a situation and the toughest thing to do is show patience,'' said Stewart. "Like most situations of urgency, it exposes the flaws and crevasses within the system, but also the strength and foundation of Team Civilization. We're all on Team Civilization and they are the casualties of that battle.''