Grief of displaced Palestinian women explored through life of Succession star Hiam Abbass

Screening at Venice, Lina Soualem's documentary Bye Bye Tiberias weaves together the past and present of her famous mother

Hiam Abbass, left, and her daughter Lina Soualem in Deir Hanna. Photo: Beall Productions
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Lina Soualem’s second feature, Bye Bye Tiberias, is a powerful documentary that revolves around four generations of Palestinian women, centred on her mother – Succession star Hiam Abbass.

Through an intimate and light-hearted approach, Soualem zooms in on Abbass, whose grandparents Umm Ali and Hosni were forcibly displaced from their home in Tiberias in 1948.

Generations later, Abbass grew up in Deir Hanna but left her village and family behind at a young age to follow her ambition of becoming an actress in Europe (later going on to feature in Blade Runner 2049 and Succession). Thirty years later, Soualem returns with Abbass to her native village in the surroundings of Lake Tiberias. Once there, she begins questioning her mother’s bold choices.

Set between past and present, Bye Bye Tiberias unpacks the joys and pains these women experience while keeping their story and legacy alive through the strength of their bonds despite exile, dispossession and heartbreak.

A co-production between France, Palestine, Belgium and Qatar, it had its world premiere in the Giornate degli Autori strand of this year’s Venice Film Festival, which runs until Saturday.

In her director’s statement, Soualem says that 'we don’t belong to a place' but 'we belong to the story of the place'. Photo: Christophe Brachet

At the Lido, I meet up with Soualem. When asked why she embarked on this project, she says: “I made Their Algeria between 2017 and 2020, which was my first documentary and my first piece of work as a filmmaker. It revolved around my paternal grandparents who emigrated from Algeria to France in the 1950s.

"While I was presenting Their Algeria at an international film festival, many were suggesting I do something about the Palestinian side of my family.

“I spoke a lot about my ‘triple’ identity when I was presenting the film, so at some point, I started thinking about telling this story. At first, I was reluctant about it because it’s a difficult story and a painful one ... At the same time, I felt it could have been a natural continuation of my first film.”

Lina and her mother look at a collage of old photos. Photo: Beall Productions

Soualem highlights how her latest film covers the same “cross-generational topics” of her debut and, in particular, that of families torn by war and exile.

On this occasion, however, it was important for her to focus on women. She adds: “As I’m now a woman and don’t feel like a daughter and a granddaughter anymore, I perceive the women of my family as equals. So I felt ready to tell this story.”

Speaking of the main external references that inspired her along the way, Soualem cites the 2014 documentary A World Not Ours by Palestinian-Danish filmmaker Mahdi Fleifel. “He followed this family staying at a refugee camp in Lebanon," she says.

"What struck me was that, even though there’s a family going through a very hard time, you laugh a lot during the film. I thought: ‘My family is just like them!’ It’s something you never see in our films.”

The co-operation with editor Gladys Joujou and co-writer Nadine Naous has also been “vital" for the development of the film. Her collaborators provided her with a useful, more distant point of view on the material and shared a common cultural background, Soualem tells me.

During the documentary, Lina takes her mother on a trip back to her roots. This photo depicts a 1980s wedding in Deir Hanna. Photo: Lina Soualem

Joujou was already involved in the project during the writing stage and began working on Soualem’s extensive family archive (mostly made of VHS tapes from the 1990s) prior to entering production.

Meanwhile, the sequences set in the present were filmed by the director herself with directors of photography Frida Marzouk and Thomas Bremond and shot between 2018 and last year. During post-production, composer Amine Bouhafa joined the team and began working on the score, helping to enhance the emotional impact of Soualem’s family tale.

When asked whether the making of this documentary changed the relationship with her family members, and whether they saw it, Soualem reveals: “We’ve just had the world premiere and they haven’t seen it yet, but my mother did.

Great-grandmother Umm Ali, Hiam and a young Lina on a balcony in the 1990s. Photo: Lina Soualem

“I can’t wait to share it with my family. They’ve seen only some clips and the teasers and they are very happy and proud that the story of our family’s women now 'exists'. Making this documentary let us spend a lot of time together, which is pleasant and made me closer to my family.”

In her director’s statement, Soualem says that “we don’t belong to a place” but “we belong to the story of the place".

When asked whether this has been a guiding principle throughout the process or something she has realised after completing her filmmaking journey, she says: “Perhaps I realised this two months ago. It came up when I was actually talking about the film after completing it. So this concept is the result of the whole process I went through, as if I tried to find my memory in places.

"I understood that I can find my memory by being part of the history of the place, and not being necessarily there. I think it’s something common to experience among exiled people. If they’re not allowed to be physically there, it doesn’t mean they don’t carry the history of their place or cannot pass it on.”

For Soualem, working on such an intimate subject has been no easy task and was frightening at first. However, for her future endeavours, she wishes to explore something new beyond her private sphere. “For me, it is as if I didn’t find another way of expressing art yet," she adds. "In the future, I hope I will be able to take more distance and tackle stories that are farther for me. That being said, I think it was important to start this way.”

Showing her documentary at the Venice Film Festival has been incredible, she says, and she burst into tears. The whole experience has brought her a huge amount of joy, especially by seeing how the stories of these women are finally not “invisible and marginalised” anymore, and can stand the test of time.

“Now I hope I will accompany my film to many places as I love sharing my work with the audience," she adds. "This is what makes me love this job, and makes me feel happy and fulfilled."

Updated: September 06, 2023, 11:00 AM