Wednesday,23 January, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1363, (5 - 11 October 2017)
Wednesday,23 January, 2019
Issue 1363, (5 - 11 October 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Soufra, the salt of hope

Al-Ahram Weekly speaks to filmmaker Thomas Morgan 

The brutal history of the Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990) has been a major topic for filmmakers all around the world. However, Thomas Morgan’s documentary Soufra took a different approach to the issue. Although the place remains the same, the story is different.

The Palestinian refugee camp of Bourj Al-Barajneh was one of the most devastated during what became known as the “War of the Camps”, a stretch of the Lebanese Civil War that took place between 1984 and 1990. The Lebanese Christian Phalanges lay siege to Bourj Al-Barajneh during the 1982 Israeli invasion of Beirut. But the most inhuman siege took place in 1984-1987, when the Ama Movement was trying to control Beirut.

Soufra competed in the feature documentary competition, and won the Cinema for Humanity (Audience) Award, which includes a trophy and $2,000; it also won an award of $10,000 from Mentor Arabia. Soufra starts with a woman’s narration describing the life situation of Palestinians living in Bourj Al-Barajneh in the Lebanese capital. The information she provides is essential to the audience understanding the details of the film’s main story. Morgan explained his intentions: “I tend to concentrate on people who find a way, in dire circumstances, to transform lives. They are heroes that we never hear of. I like stories of hope and people who will give everything they have to bring hope to others. Mariam is a great example of that person on so many levels. When I hear about a strong female, generational refugee, entrepreneur trying to start a food truck — I mean how many more obstacles could there be? I flew to Beirut just a few weeks later. In the year of the Wonder Woman film, I think I met a real Wonder Woman.”

The social and the political situation of the camp has forced its residents to take low-income jobs; many women are factory cleaners. In 2016, what is more, there was a surge of refugees trying to leave Lebanon on illegal boats to Europe, and many in the process.

Such devastation forms the background of daily life at the camp. This filmmaker tries to bring hope out of this grim reality, however, with a film about poor Palestinian, Syrian and Lebanese women from the Bourj Al-Barajneh who have a passion for cooking. These women decide to use their culinary talent to earn extra money that can make their life much easier, by launching a catering company. “I didn’t want to take a political approach to the film because I didn’t want to lose the amazing story,” Morgan says. “If you walk into the camp today, there are refugees from many different places and with a huge influx from Syria. They all have tragic stories. My approach was to look through the lens and see people who have been, in a way, discarded. I wanted to make the film a story that is relatable to so many other situations — whether that be the Rohingya refugees, the Syrian refugees or the women in poverty raising kids and living with contaminated water in Flint, Michigan. Mariam has never taken money from a political or religious organisation because she said when you do so you start to exclude people. I tried to stay true to that with the film.” 

Although the political situation of the refugees might be tempting to many filmmakers to imply their own thoughts or beliefs, Morgan tried as hard as he could to concentrate on the human issue of these women and their struggle to move on with life: “I didn’t aim to make this a film that spoke to the politics involved. I think that allowing Palestinians or other refugees to become citizens would upset the balance of the different confessions in power and so it won’t happen. But these camps are nearly 70 years old — that is a long time to not address a better solution. I hope that someday soon there’ll be someone with enough political courage to say enough is enough. What is happening now is unjust.” 

The camera follows the emotional reactions of Mariam Shaar as she tries to change her fate and that of her neighbours against all odds. Shaar is the team leader of the group of women, who deals with the administrative obstacles and is looking for a suitable vehicle to use as a food truck on the streets of Beirut. 

The director delves into the details of day-to-day work, preparing food for the costumers. As their kitchen becomes a hive of activity, they come closer to their first goal, that of buying the catering truck, in order to make food for the public and take their project to another level.

Explaining how he managed to shoot in the camp and the obstacles he faced during filming, Morgan says, “I didn’t concentrate on one group — it was the story of all of the women. But when we first started shooting it became clear to me how difficult so many things were for Mariam. It was frustrating to watch but after a while you realise this is what life is like for them every day. What was amazing to see was the calmness and grace with which they negotiated their way through all of the obstacles. I think that what Mariam has done with the kitchen and now with the food truck has not only changed the way those in the camp see themselves, but it has also touched so many outside the camp that I am sure it will have a positive impact on the way they’re treated in the future.

“I remember the day I got there and asked the women to sign a release so we could film them. They all stood looking back at me until Mariam walked up and signed and then they all lined up behind her. I know it sounds kind of trivial but at the time I felt a great weight in the room — this was them saying to the world — see us. I felt like it was very brave of them — especially given that I was an outsider. I am humbled that they trusted me with their story.”

The film shows many women and intermingles their different personalities. Sometimes the filmmaker tries to generate suspense by approaching the area of failure when they apply for a licence to operate the catering truck. Morgan uses extreme close shots to capture their anxiety and desperation. On the other hand, he tends to use long shots for the moments of the joy that result from making an achievement.

“I don’t know what will happen with the homeland of the Palestinians or the Syrians,” Morgan concluded. “I think it seems strange to be two and three generations removed from your country, never setting foot in the country they say you are a citizen of, and not having the basic rights of the society. What is happening, and what I hope can continue to happen, is that the refugees are pulled into society by the citizens of the country. When you are catering parties in other people’s homes, selling to them at the market, or seeing them at different events — you develop relationships. Those relationships become stronger than the government. When the citizens start demanding fair treatment for their friends that live inside the camp — because they know them and care about them, that is far more powerful.”


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