The Syrian Civil War has led to a humanitarian crisis that’s only getting worse. As of now, roughly 4.6 million Syrians have left the country, many of whom have fled to neighboring Jordan, Turkey, and Lebanon, with others fleeing for Europe. Within Syria, more than 6 million people have been internally displaced.
After Spring is rather timely given the discussion of Syrian refugees in the presidential race, the ugly growth of xenophobic/nationalist/right-wing political parties, and the larger discussion about ISIS and its many victims. Yet rather than taking an overt political stance, directors Ellen Martinez and Steph Ching focus on the day-to-day lives of Syrian refugees in the Zaatari Refugee Camp in Jordan, and the way aid workers help them rebuild a normal(-ish) life in a desert.
Director: Ellen Martinez and Steph Ching
Release Date: TBD
A man gets an order on the phone: pizza for delivery. We’re in the Zaatari camp. The pizza man makes the pie in a small oven, boxes it up, and has his son deliver the pizza on his bike. It’s strange (is it condescending to use the word “strange”?) to think of a Syrian pizza parlor that delivers in a Jordanian refugee camp, yet this is the new normal for those who no longer have a home.
In Zaatari, there are restaurants and rows of shops. After arriving at the camp, displaced Syrians decided to rebuild the quotidian as best as they could. You can buy cell phones, you can rent formal wear, you can buy little toys and bric-a-brac. New arrivals tend to stay in tents first before given mobile trailers to live in. There are 80,000 people in the camp, and more than half of them are children. It’s not Syria before the war, but it’ll do, at least for now–a prolonged now.
Martinez and Ching divide their focus between families who live in Zaatari and a handful of the aid workers there. The head of the camp, Kilian Kleinschmidt, has years of experience in humanitarian aid, and he approaches his job with equal measures of optimism and grim reality. Zaatari is one of the biggest and most well-known refugee camps in the world, and Kleinschmidt hopes to leverage the camp’s profile to attract celebrities and world leaders to visit, make donations, and raise awareness, There’s an air of marketing in this approach, but maybe that’s what donors will respond to more than the moral obligation to the refugees per se.
Ching and Martinez rarely leave Zaatari in their film, a spend most of the documentary chronicling the daily rhythms of displaced life. Babies are born, aid requests are made, and some of the people in camp even contemplate a return to Syria. Life outside of the camp is much more difficult, even outside of Syria. Ching and Martinez catch up with one woman and her family who left Zaatari to live in Jordan, but her struggles have made her consider a return to the camp. Getting to the camp was difficult enough, but leaving its confines might prove more difficult.
Jon Stewart added his name to After Spring as an executive producer, which will hopefully get more eyes on the movie. With the new wave of international Islamophobia spurred by the ISIS attacks in Paris, San Bernardino, and Brussels, After Spring is much-needed counterweight. It’s a humanizing movie, one about empathy and our duty to others (literally millions) in need. It’s far too easy to discount the lives of other people when they’re just an abstract ethnic group or religious group. After Spring gives faces to the Syrians similarly affected by the war. One of the refugees at Zaatari mentions bringing down Bashar al-Assad toward the end of the film, and that sudden injection of politics and factionalism reminded me that the conflict within Syria is maybe as irresolvable as this humanitarian crisis.
With so many children in the camps, one of the aid workers sets up a taekwondo academy to provide structure and discipline. There’s hope in this–something so simple and suburban, yet it provides a center that holds. Like ordering a pizza for delivery, here’s a reminder of the comforts that give people a sense of home, and the little things people do to restore humanity to others. It’s a small bloom in the desert, a fragile and beautiful thing.