The Straits Times: Whipping up hope in the kitchen in Soufra

Some documentary-makers thrive on exposing miscarriages of justice. Others seek out danger while some tell the stories of despair and destruction.

American film-maker Thomas Morgan, however, prefers that viewers leave his films feeling happier than when they walked in.

"I always like to give a sense of hope in dire situations," says the 50-year-old director of Soufra, who was speaking at a post-screening discussion held last week at arthouse cinema The Projector.

Soufra tells the story of a group of refugee women living in the Bourj el-Barajneh Refugee Camp in Lebanon.

The women, whose families hail from war-torn countries in the Middle East, live in a cramped colony plagued by underemployment, collapsing buildings and death by electrocution from worn-out overhead cables.

They are hemmed in by both physical walls and bureaucratic ones, set up by a Lebanese government trying to curb the political and economic influence of the 1.5 million refugees who live within its borders.

A Palestinian refugee, Mariam Shaar, with the help of philanthropic agency Alfanar, founds Soufra, which is Arabic for "feast". The catering unit provides much-needed income for its women employees.

Morgan's film crew enters in late 2015, just as a Kickstarter campaign is about to be launched so that Shaar's group can buy and fit out a food truck. The vehicle will give Soufra a chance to grow the business and show Lebanese the rich variety of dishes to be enjoyed from cultures in the region.

The film follows Shaar as she throws herself at the vines of red tape that threaten to choke the project.

"Mariam is the kind of person who never thinks of her situation as dire. She thinks of it as, 'It is what it is.' She never looks back, never blames anyone. I wanted the film to reflect who she is as a person," says Morgan.

Filming took about two years. At the time, Morgan and his family were based in Singapore.

He must have flown between Lebanon and here about 16 times, he reckons, though a Beirut-based crew was there the whole period, ready to film at a moment's notice.

While he was filming and editing, Morgan says he kept one thing in mind - that Shaar and the rest of the refugees were not to be portrayed as one-dimensional objects of pity.

Establishing that these women are human beings with real personalities was crucial to the story.

This is why the film depicts small moments of women having fun and cooking, mixed in with the bigger, more dramatic ones.

"I wanted to make Mariam feel like one of us, not like one of 'them'. A lot of times, with a topic like this that showcases a community, they are shown to be victims," Morgan says.

• Listen to John Lui and Soufra's director-producer Thomas Morgan in The Straits Times' new podcast Life Chats at

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 13, 2018, with the headline 'Whipping up hope in the kitchen'. Print Edition | Subscribe

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