SOUFRA, documentary, not rated, in Arabic with subtitles, The Screen, 4 chiles
Soufra — a word that means “dining table” in Arabic — is a shamelessly sweet, inspirational documentary about women who start a catering company by the same name out of a refugee camp near Beirut. Be warned: You will want to eat every bit of the food you see in this movie, and you will envy the level of camaraderie in the Soufra kitchen.
The fearless leader is Mariam Shaar, a Palestinian refugee who was born and raised in the Burj el-Barajneh camp. As a refugee, she has no citizenship or official address, and no real prospects for changing her situation. Work opportunities for men are slim, and slimmer still for women, who are needed to take care of the children. Shaar works with a women’s group in her community to provide education and vocational training. When survey results in her group indicate that many women are interested in turning their cooking into a money-making endeavor, Shaar collaborates with a venture philanthropy organization, Alfanar, to secure start-up money for a company.
The main action of the movie — besides numerous scenes of cooking and serving, in which you can practically smell the meat and spices the women roll in pastry dough — concerns Soufra’s efforts to expand with a food truck, for which they raise funds through a Kickstarter page. The problem is that without a real address, which Soufra lacks, they cannot get a license to run such a truck. Shaar is typically undeterred. Things go wrong all the time; there are always hurdles to overcome. For instance, just to consider operating the food truck, Shaar has to learn how to drive for the first time in her forty-some years.
Soufra is an uplifting film that does not ignore some of the struggles within the refugee camp, including cramped conditions, a lack of services, unsafe electrical wiring, and other poverty-related issues. The women of Soufra have each raised several children, never prioritizing their own needs over those of the family. As they experience business success — in catering contracts with schools and private homes, and in the smiles on the faces of satisfied customers — they begin to seem more physically and viscerally free. In one of the most precarious moments for the future of the food truck, Shaar tells us that she’s never been scared of war — that she would walk outside during a bombing, confident that she would be unhurt. All she wants is to be able to give other women the ability to feel pride in their own humanity. — Jennifer Levin
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