(2017) Documentary (Pilgrim Media Group) Mariam Shaar, Teresa Chahine, Nabil Mansour, Ghada Masrieh, Bente Scheller, Maral Hassan, Hussein Ali, Ayman Bouz, Abeer Hassan Almassry. Directed by Thomas A. Morgan
The refugee crisis around the world has been heartbreaking and seems to only be getting worse. In Lebanon, the Bourj el-Barajneh was founded in the outskirts of Beirut, Lebanon back in 1948 for Palestinian refugees. It has recently swelled as Syrian refugees have joined them in the densely populated and cramped ghetto, complete with knots of electrical wires overhead that short out whenever it rains.
Life for refugees in Lebanon isn’t a kind and easy one. There are certain occupations that refugees cannot work in; there is absolutely no path to citizenship. Most residents of the camp just while away the days, wallowing in frustration and hopelessness. Into this world was born Mariam Shaar, who quit school at an early age to help her family. She got the idea that the women of the camp, particularly hit hard by the malaise that permeated the camp, could contribute the skill nearly all of them shared – cooking.
She founded Soufra, a catering company whose name approximately to “full table of bounty.” She wisely surmised that working would give the women a sense of purpose and of self-worth. At first her company catered school lunches, serving up traditional and healthy food for the children of the camp. Soon word got around of their delicious food and they were hired for corporate functions and high-end parties. The business was taking off.
But beyond that Mariam had enough native business acumen to realize that her group must continue to grow or stagnate. To that end she initiated a Kickstarter campaign so that Soufra could purchase their very own food truck. Sounds like a good idea, right?
What she didn’t anticipate were all the bureaucratic hurdles that she would need to overcome in order to make the purchase. Even with the help of a sympathetic lawyer, it seemed like the refugees were regarded with suspicion and the women even more so. However, every time she was told “no” only added to her determination to make the food truck a reality and if there’s anything I’ve learned in over 20 years of marriage, never get in the way of a determined woman.
Morgan wisely doesn’t turn this into a crusade. More than anything, this is a story about how determination and faith can move mountains. It’s an inspirational character study – not just of Mariam, who is certainly the front and center of the group, but all the women who work together and form the kind of bond that can only come with hard work and long odds. The inspiration comes from within.
I’m not really well-versed with middle eastern cuisine but the food here looks absolutely tasty. Those who recognize these recipes as comfort food will no doubt have an even closer connection to the film than I did – but even those who don’t like myself may well find themselves wanting to take a crash course in Palestinian and Syrian cuisine. I know I do.
Sometimes “inspiring” is overused when it comes to documentaries but in this case it does fit. While this is essentially on the festival circuit, I wouldn’t be surprised if it shows up on a streaming service relatively soon. Keep your eyes peeled for it. Also, if you want to give some of these dishes a whirl at home, the website (which can be accessed by clicking on the photo above) is selling the Soufra cookbook. It’s expensive but think of it as going to a good cause and not just to some celebrity chef’s offshore bank account.
REASONS TO GO: The story is very inspiring. The film is an eye-opener as to what refugees face on a daily basis.
REASONS TO STAY: Some may note that there is a gut of refugee documentaries out there right now.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some smoking.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: One of the executive producers is actress/activist Susan Sarandon.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/11/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: 77/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Any episode of Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown and Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations.
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
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