25 Nov Eye For Film: Soufra
Lebanon has a native population of just over six million. It’s also home to over a million refugees. Not wanting to turn anyone away, it has allowed them to flood into camps where they can at least be safe from the persecution they faced at home, but it struggles to provide them with enough to live on and makes it very difficult for them to get work permits, fearing the response of its native citizens should they compete for jobs. In this situation it can be very difficult to rebuild a life, to create any kind of future. This documentary presents a group of women who fought against all the odds to start their own business and make a useful contribution to their community.
The same rule applies here as across most of the world: where formal employment is scarce, the men tend to get first pick. Many of the women in this group have never worked outside the home. They’re low on tradable skills, but one thing they do know how to do is cook. “I can cook anything!” is a common boast in the kitchen, and although this may reflect a rather limited awareness of the world’s culinary delights, what they do produce looks delicious. Director Thomas A Morgan frames it in such a way that one can almost smell it, rich colours saturating the screen, sumptuous textures providing ample temptation. Yet for all their skill, the women are not professionals, and navigating a world of licenses and approvals is difficult when you’re not even familiar with terms like ‘food grade’. All the more so when even well-meaning officials have no idea how to make the system work for refugees who don’t even have normal home addresses.
The driving force behind the women’s efforts to overcome these obstacles is Mariam AlShaar, a smiling, ebullient woman who, when asked what she does in the kitchen, responds with the question “Besides eating?” She’s a natural organiser and easily inspires the other women to commit to the venture, but as time goes on, even she struggles to keep on believing in it. The numerous complications that beset even her attempts to buy a truck become exhausting. Anybody who has ever run a business will relate, but there’s no denying that she has it tougher than most.
Mariam’s own toughness in the face of these multiple delays and setbacks is remarkable to see, and it soon becomes clear that its importance reaches beyond her immediate circles – she carries the hopes of thousands. Morgan’s film acknowledges these issues – and the bleak context of those who despair setting out to sea in tiny boats in an attempt to reach Europe – whilst maintaining an intimate atmosphere that makes room for bringing personal stories to the fore. It’s a documentary full of little details that open up broader perspectives, and it serves as a reminder that refugees have the same ambition and desire to improve their own lives and others’ as people lucky enough to come from stable countries.
Just don’t watch it when you’re hungry.