'Soufra': Film Review
Against the odds, a group of women who live in a Lebanese refugee camp pursue their food-truck dreams in a documentary executive produced by Susan Sarandon.
The catering company that gives the film Soufra its name was formed in the unlikely setting of the Bourj el-Barajneh refugee camp, on the outskirts of Beirut. Within a densely populated area smaller than a half square mile, the group of women profiled in Thomas Morgan's concise chronicle joined forces, built a business and became symbols of hope.
Following their collective challenges and triumphs over a two-year period, the director acknowledges the depressing and often dangerous conditions in which Lebanon's refugees live. But Soufra's lasting impression is one of empowerment and the energizing sense of purpose and community that the women derive from the enterprise along with their incomes.
With its likable subjects and its mouthwatering close-ups of musakhan and frikeh, this is a feel-good doc that's clear-eyed and grounded in tough realities. The self-distributed item is a small film with a big heart, and one whose profile is sure to be raised by the support of executive producer Susan Sarandon (whose onetime co-star Geena Davis will host the opening night of the Oscar-qualifying run in Los Angeles).
The venture's leader, Mariam Shaar, was born and raised in the camp, her parents having arrived from Palestine in 1948. A promising student who quit school to help support her family, she's someone who, as a close observer puts it, was "not born to give up." With help from venture philanthropy organization Alfanar, Shaar and other women from the camp found quick success with their catering company, beginning with school lunches and moving on to private parties in well-to-do settings. The film finds them ready to embark on the next step — branching out with a food truck, which would be the first such business run from within a refugee camp.
But the red tape they face over licensing goes to the heart of their difficult situation. While it's true that Lebanon has admitted large numbers of refugees from Palestine, Syria and Iraq over the decades, the welcome hasn't extended far beyond the border: Not only is citizenship not an option for the refugees, but they're also restricted from certain professions. As determined and optimistic as Shaar is, it becomes increasingly clear that Soufra is delving into untrodden territory, and the barriers to the company's next goal don't fall easily.
With crisp editing by Mohamed El Manasterly (an Emmy winner for his work on Jehane Noujaim's Egyptian Revolution documentary The Square), the film deftly balances the personalities and culinary creativity with the fundamental matter of day-to-day political struggle. As the women teach one another recipes, they're sharing their stories and cultural backgrounds. At work in the kitchen and at the table for a communal meal, their joy is contagious, even though some traditional dishes, as Shaar points out, have become indelibly connected with wartime deprivation.
Shaar's humor is as evident as her managerial savvy and focus. Morgan and DP Johny Karam catch her working the phones, overseeing the kitchen ("I do a lot of tasting and nag a lot") and monitoring the progress of the Kickstarter campaign for the food truck. As bureaucratic matters drag out, she arranges a movie night to buoy the women's spirits, and sneaks glances to gauge their reactions — captured in tight close-up by Karam — as Jon Favreau cooks and rages in Chef.
In Morgan's notes for the film, he recalls that the day before the women of Soufra first participated in a local farmer’s market, there had been a suicide bombing near their camp. Their trip to the market was a particularly difficult one, marked by transportation challenges and numerous security checkpoints. That fitful journey probably would have made powerful, troubling viewing. It isn't clear whether Morgan wasn't able to film it or chose not to do so.
Yet though the matter of the refugees' survival in a place where they're not entirely free and often viewed as a threat may not be dramatically illustrated in Soufra, it's the context of every conversation and interaction. What Morgan gives us is the women arriving at the market, nervous and delighted, stepping out from behind the invisible walls that separate them from the rest of Beirut.
Production companies: Rebelhouse Group, Pilgrim Media Group, Big 9 Productions
Director: Thomas Morgan
Screenwriters: Thomas Morgan, Mohamed El Manasterly
Producers: Thomas Morgan, Kathleen Glynn, Trevor Hall, Craig Piligian
Executive producers: Susan Sarandon, Barry Landry, Anderson Hinsch, Jessie Creel, Colin Maximillian Rozario, Nadprasad Shankar, Mary Fisher
Director of photography: Johny Karam
Editor: Mohamed El Manasterly
Composers: Alex Seaver, Ken Joseph
Sales: Endeavor Content