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Tribeca 2016 Women Directors: Meet Ellen Martinez and Steph Ching – ‘After Spring’

Tribeca 2016 Women Directors: Meet Ellen Martinez and Steph Ching - 'After Spring'

Ellen Martinez was the associate producer on “Tested,” a feature documentary about educational inequality in the NYC public school system. 

Steph Ching was the associate producer and additional editor on the Emmy-nominated documentary, “Supermensch: The Legend of Shep Gordon.” Ching’s other passions include volunteer work; she participated in relief efforts during post-hurricane Katrina and made several trips to Sichuan, China to film testimonies with survivors of the 2008 earthquake. (Press materials) 

“After Spring” will premiere at the 2016 Tribeca Film Festival on April 14.

W&H: Describe the film for us in your own words.

EM & SC: “After Spring” is a story about two Syrian families living in the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan. Having lived there for several years, they are now looking to the future and must decide if they can continue to live in a place that was never meant to be permanent. We also explore the stories of humanitarian aid workers who struggle to keep up with the demands of supporting a refugee camp of around 80,000 people.

We hope the film is immersive and shows the surprisingly hopeful side of the Syrian refugee crisis and the resilience of the people most affected. 

W&H: What drew you to this story?

EM & SC: We both have personal connections that inspired us to make “After Spring.”

EM: I went to high school in Damascus, Syria and spent over eight years living in the Middle East. As the conflict in Syria escalated I was extremely frustrated by how the media failed to talk to the Syrian people and show the human side of the story. Everything was so politicized while thousands of refugees were fleeing to neighboring countries. When an aid organization at Zaatari invited us to Jordan to film, we knew we had to figure out a way to go and help tell a different side to this story.

SC: I had more of a circuitous road to understanding why she was drawn to the story. I had always gravitated towards stories surrounding humanitarian issues but it wasn’t until I spent time at the camp that I began to understand how close this hit to my personal history. My grandma was a refugee in China at the end of World War II.

She never liked to label herself as a refugee, and to me she was just Grandma, but I remember growing up with all of these stories of her “fleeing war” — the soldiers marching through her neighborhood, the few things she brought with her and the journey on the boat. It wasn’t until I started hearing very similar stories from the people we met at Zaatari, that I began to make this connection. The fact that this story is representative of so many people’s histories, whether it is the current generation or one over 70 years ago, is so powerful.

W&H: What do you want people to think about when they are leaving the theater?

EM & SC: We hope this movie will help people better understand what it means to be a refugee. The families in our film had happy, fulfilling lives back in Syria before they were forced to flee. No one chooses to become a refugee and we hope our documentary can help audiences put a human face to this issue that is so often generalized in the media.

We hope it will inspire some of our audience to get involved with organizations that are doing work to help in this refugee crisis. For more information on how to get involved, please check out our website

W&H: What was the biggest challenge in making the film?

EM and SC: The biggest challenge overall was finding the funding. It ended up coming from a mix of sources and was an ongoing process throughout the last three years. The biggest challenge in production was getting the unique access we needed to film for an extended amount of time in the Zaatari Refugee Camp.

It was really important for us to have the time to get to know Mohammed and Abu Ibrahim’s family and build a relationship of trust before asking them to open up to us. Typically, journalists and the media are only allowed to come to the camp on a very restricted basis. Maneuvering through the logistics and security permits that came with getting that extra time was a challenge. We’re very grateful to the Jordanian authorities for their cooperation and for giving us the freedom to help tell the story we wanted to tell. 

W&H: How did you get
your film funded? Share some insights into how you got the film made.

EM & SC: Our film was funded mostly
through grants. We received a MacArthur Foundation grant at a critical time in
our project. Without these funds it would have taken us a lot longer to finish
the film. We also received support from NYSCA, British Council and the Richard
Vague Fund. Earlier in the project we had a Kickstarter campaign and also received
an investment.

W&H:
What’s the best and worst advice you’ve received?

EM & SC: The
best advice was encouraging us to try thinking about documentary as you would a
narrative film — plot, character arcs, etc.

We had 300 hours of footage and
didn’t know all that we had until we were done shooting. We knew we didn’t want
to have a narrator and wanted to let the people speak for themselves.

Their
stories were so rich and we wanted to let their unique personalities come
across on camera. A lot of the feelings they expressed to us were reflections
about their lives in Syria, and hopes for the future — material that did not always fall into a
traditional dramatic timeline. Being encouraged to play with the medium and
structure while still staying true to their story was very freeing advice.  

The best practical advice we got had to do with equipment and clearing customs. Research the rules specific to the country to which you are traveling and if you can speak with someone else who has filmed there before, do it!

The
worst advice was that we could rely on a crowdfunding campaign. While it did
help us with production costs and raised awareness of our film, we encountered
a lot of unexpected hurdles during the process.

W&H: What advice do you have for other female directors?

EM & SC: This was our first feature film so we reached out to a lot of people for advice. Again, talk to other directors or people who have been to the places you are going. We sent a lot of cold-emails and Facebook/Twitter messages — people are approachable and the independent documentary community is very supportive!

Also, find room in the budget to pay yourself, even a little bit. This is a marathon and it needs to be sustainable. And unfortunately, if you are making your first doc feature, accept that no one is going to give you money until you have shot something, so figure out how to make that happen. Even if it is scouting footage, or a preliminary interview, do something!


W&H: Name your favorite woman-directed film and why.


EM & SC: It’s really hard to pick a favorite movie but some recent docs we really liked are Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s “Blackfish” and Sarah Polley’s “Stories We Tell.”  

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