Thomas Morgan’s Soufra is about Mariam Shafar, a Palestinian entrepreneur living in Beirut, Lebanon. The documentary is named for her catering business in the Burj el-Barajneh refugee camp. The Arabic word “soufra” means a long table filled with many good things to eat. What makes the 42-year-old’s ambition so surprising is that she is the third generation of her family to live in the camp, a place that one of Shafar’s employees compares to a walled city. There are few opportunities in Burj el-Barajneh, and many of its inhabitants are impoverished.
All of Shafar’s employees wear hijabs. Few are professional chefs, but apprenticeship is the model at the company that serves Middle Eastern cuisine. As the documentary unfolds, the women, who are Palestinian and Syrian, begin to share recipes, which leads to the creation of original dishes. At one point, Shafar takes her staff to a cooking class to improve their skills in food presentation and delivery. She also hires a marketing manager. The documentary chronicles Soufra’s first contract to supply food to schools, and the establishment of a stand at the souk, and then the burgeoning business of catering for parties.
Morgan trailed the businesswoman for two years, during the course of which Soufra expanded, with funding from a UN agency and a Kickstarter campaign—as well as the labors of the women Shafar empowers. The dignity that their work lends to them and to their families allows the women to see beyond the despair of the camp, to buy necessities they have not been able to afford, or to send a child back to school. In a brief shot of the women while they are on a break, one says that she dreams of having her own business one day.
The employees have also formed a What’s App group so they can stay in touch outside of work. A few of the women, including Ghada, the most popular employee, are interviewed in the film; they recount what the daily companionship of other women has meant to them. Morgan devotes a good deal of the film to the women working in the kitchen, often with their children at their side. Shafar, who speaks directly to the camera, explains the conditions in the camp, the fact that while Lebanon has long taken in refugees and provides them with money each month, it is barely enough to sustain families. Rents outside the refugee camp are higher, and so few are able to move out. Refugees are also prevented from entering some professions, and it is difficult for anyone to find a job.
At one point, Shafar’s mother is interviewed, and she says that when Mariam told her she did not want to marry, she did not object, but now she thinks her daughter works too hard. With some pride, her mother says that Shafar is putting her siblings through school, a privilege she was denied because the family could not afford to pay for higher education. Shafar is constantly under stress, and she tells Morgan that she “worries about everything.” Each new spurt of growth at Soufra requires her to gain a new skill.
Shafar’s idea for a catering business grew out of the responses from women in the camp when she asked them what sort of work they would like to do if they were to get a job. Most women told her they would like to cook; it is a skill many already possess, and as Morgan illustrates, one that they take great pride in. If Shafar did not anticipate the many ways her employees would be transformed by what for some is their first job, the filmmaker highlights each one. Serving food at a party, one Soufra employee observes that she meets “different people”; the female guests are more affluent and there is not a hijab in sight.
While Soufra is mostly the story of one smart and determined woman, her lawyer puts the challenges Shafar faces in perspective when he says: “Here, there is no Plan B. When you fail, you repeat Plan A.” Failure arrives when Shafar wants to expand Soufra by purchasing a vehicle and converting it to a food truck. She needs permission from a government minister, which is not forthcoming, and when she tries to purchase the truck anyway, the dealer will not sell it to her because she does not have the necessary approval and paperwork. Her lawyer tells her the problem is that Soufra does not have an address outside the camp. Discrimination against the inhabitants of the camp is a fact of life.
Burj el-Barajneh is thought by some authorities to be a hotbed of extremism. In some ways, Shafar is proof of that, although not the political extremism they fear. Shafar could not be called a feminist; she does not espouse principles or openly admit that her aim is to empower other women. She never rests on her laurels. Shafar simply does what she sets out to do, and if there is no Plan B, as her lawyer observes, Shafar modifies Plan A, and refuses to believe that she will not meet with success eventually. Even when it is not clear whether Shafar will be able to get the truck, she decides she must learn to drive. Her fear, mixed with exhilaration, the first time she gets behind the wheel, seems to explain her personality more than any other scene in the documentary. The thrill for Shafar is anything she has never done.
Soufra takes its cue from its modest hero. Both style and content are understated. Music is used in a subtle way, and while there are wonderful montages of food, nothing else calls attention to the camera. If Soufra sets out to provide a portrait of Muslim women that is not often seen in other documentaries, viewers soon forget the hijabs. By the end of the film, the women have scaled the camp’s imaginary walls, and Shafar has taken on another challenge.
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