After her directorial debut, Their Algeria, French-Palestinian-Algerian filmmaker Lina Soualem follows her mother, actress Hiam Abbass, in her sophomore film, Bye Bye Tiberias, an intimate documentary about four generations of women and their shared legacy of separation. The film played at the Toronto International Film Festival after premiering in the Giornate degli autori sidebar of the Venice Film Festival.
For Soualem, Bye Bye Tiberias is a continuation of sorts of her first feature, Their Algeria, in which she explores the story of her paternal grandparents who emigrated from Algeria to France in the 1950s. She started exploring intergenerational transmission in the context of exile in this particular film. In Bye Bye Tiberias, she continues along the same path, but rather focuses on the women in the family, especially those trying to find their place in the family, not only as a child or a grandchild, but also as a woman, “The big question that I started with is: How do you find your place in the world as a woman, especially when you come from stories of displacements? When you have to navigate between different worlds, how do you find that? Because, as a woman, it’s very difficult to find your place in one society, one world, one country, one place,” Soualem tells Fade to Her.
That was the starting point of Bye Bye Tiberias, coupled with her intention of exploring and highlighting how the women in her Palestinian family have been able, generation after generation, to maintain their legacy alive despite all the hardship they had been through, “Because I know about the tragic collective stories, and I never understood how they made it through that and how they could go beyond that past, these obstacles and transmit values of love, of forgiveness, of struggle. So, there were many things that I wanted to explore through their paths,” she says.
Indeed, Bye Bye Tiberias is a very personal film. Soualem believes that the most universal things are also the most intimate, as we can all connect with our family through our human emotions, “It’s very personal, but I never thought that it would be for me. I always thought that these are stories that have to be transmitted because many other people could have similar stories or identify [with them], even if they don’t come from the same place. Because we all have the question of how do we belong to a family? How we belong to a country? How we belong to a culture? These are existential questions,” Soualem argues.
How did Hiam Abbass get on board Bye Bye Tiberias?
“How could I not get on board?” she answers. For Abbass, it was very important to be part of this film, “I’m her mom! If she’s questioning her mother, her grandmother and her great grandmother, she passes by me! I think when we are kind of generous with the sharing of our personal stories, maybe we give existence to a lot of others who could have had similar paths, or we could be the identity of a lot of people that feel that there is a representation of our stories somewhere in this world,” she explains.
In that sense, according to her, cinema is a highly valuable tool and it has been hers for many years, “For the mission to just go with Lina’s desire, and especially from the women’s perspective, I thought it’s really important as well, because a lot of stories have been told from men’s perspective about how men were part of a struggle. We hear a lot about the journeys of men. And I think, for once, just to take even random women, but who built societies, who were behind a lot of the transmission of values in my society was very important,” Abbass says.
When she looks back on her life, Abbass admits she has no regrets, “I don’t live in regrets, really. I think if I stagnated and regretted, I wouldn’t be where I am. I might have made mistakes. Others made mistakes towards me maybe, but that didn’t stop me from going forward.”
Bye Bye Tiberias is a deeply political film and, for Soualem, people who live in such places, their political context cannot be ignored because their intimate life has been influenced by the collective political context, “I don’t see how it can be not political. I think it’s really everything in my life and what I do is political anyway because I consider that when you come from places that have had stories of war displacement like the French colonization in Algeria, which is the story of my paternal family, you cannot see the world with apolitical glasses. I wish [we could], but it’s not possible for us,” she posits, adding that one should transform that and try to see how the political has affected their story, but also gave them perhaps “a sense of justice, a sense of struggle, a sense of resistance to oppression.”
Abbass, who is faced with this question quite often, thinks she does not see herself as a political person in the sense of what politics mean today simply because she is not a politician. In her opinion, there is a difference between politics and politicians, “Bigger politics in general is just an awareness of what’s happening around you, and how you vehicle your values and who you are and your principles in life. And the fact that you’re not thinking only about yourself, but you’re thinking about the collectivity in which you live or which you belong to, or to which you just had some kind of connection in life. And when I think about my childhood and where I was born and what I inherited, I mean, how can I look at my mom’s story or my grandma’s story without putting them in their context? If their context was political at that time, it’s because there was a big war that happened, and how do you refer to this? Do you deny it? Or, do you accept to not look at it as part of their story, which is really like almost the milk that I drank, which I grew up with,” Abbass claims.
In Bye Bye Tiberias, Soualem intertwines home videos with archival footage. Home videos where the genesis of the project, and she found them valuable because they show a time and a territory that have undergone many alterations. They are proof of the transformations of the territory and the people and they were useful to tell her story and her mother’s story, but in order to tell her grandmother or her great grandmother’s story, she didn’t have the images to illustrate it, “So, I was looking for camera footage to be able to use it with other faces or the faces of women that I tried to find in the archival footage to put them in this collective story so that we understand that it’s not only their story, but that it’s a broader story,” Soualem explains. This particular endeavor took a long time as the archival footage of historical Palestine from the 1920s, 1930s, or 1940s is scattered around the globe, “You have different sources of images and it takes a long time to gather them… It’s a long process, but it was really, really important for me because there’s a lot of photographs, but I felt that, as I was making a film, I needed to have videos and this was the hardest thing to find – videos. And then, in the videos, I wanted to find women, so that was another challenge,” she says of her process in terms of archival archaeology.
Soualem doesn’t film Israelis in Bye Bye Tiberias, except for one circumstantial scene. For her, “it’s not a choice of showing or not showing; it’s really about focusing on the family, because it’s my responsibility to tell the story of my family. But I don’t want to start pointing out or telling the story of others because I relate to others,” Soualem maintains.
Abbass adds, “The whole telling of Lena and the story of the women, it wasn’t to tackle the Palestinian struggle and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict because it wasn’t about ‘I’m going to tell you what that story was and I’m going to blame this or that.’”
Photo credits: Brian de Rivera Simon/GETTY/TIFF.
This interview was conducted at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival.