Camp Cook

(Thomas Morgan’s Soufra opened this week in New York City and will be going wide soon.)

Stuck in a one-square kilometer ghetto – also called a “refugee camp” – 50,000 Palestinians live in the heart of Beirut, Lebanon, unable to do much of anything beyond scrape by. These are mostly folks whose families have been on the run since the 1948 founding of Israel. Whatever one may think of the original reasons for, or causes of, that exile, for the vast majority of these refugees their lives are defined by decisions made by parents, grandparents and great-grandparents. The limited horizons of their futures disappear in the distance with no respite in sight. Unless, that is, they are women who love to cook, in which case there is “Soufra.”

That word, in Arabic, means “big fancy table with a variety of good food,” according to Mariam Shaar, a Palestinian woman who has founded a catering business by that name. She and her fellow cooks first cater meals within the camp, then in surrounding food markets and restaurants, and have a dream to one day buy and license a food truck. The documentary about the business – and the attempt to get the truck – is also called Soufra, and it is directed by Thomas Morgan (Storied Streets). I was not a fan of the intrusive soundtrack music – nor, and this may seem petty, of the visual design of the onscreen subtitles – but I was a fan of the women and their story. Kudos to Morgan for gathering the material and structuring the narrative in such a compelling fashion.

What especially impresses is Morgan’s focus on conditions of life in the camp and the bureaucracy that oppresses the residents. We watch as bundles of hanging electrical cables catch fire in a rainstorm, later learning that over 30 people have died as a result. We marvel at the Lebanese government’s apparent indifference to the situation and its resistance to licensing the Soufra truck. All the while, the camera is there. The human spirit is resilient, and Mariam and her team are tough. We hope they will succeed, but we’re not sure. The food looks good. How could anyone resist?

– Christopher Llewellyn Reed (@ChrisReedFilm)

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