Arab Premiere of “Bye Bye Tiberias” presented at Marrakech by Mother-Daughter Team, Hiam Abbass and Lina Soualem 

VERDICT: Bye Bye Tiberias is Palestine’s submission for Best International Feature at the Academy Awards

By Liza Foreman

There is a quietness and thoughtfulness about the Palestinian actress Hiam Abbass (“Paradise Now,” “The Syrian Bride”) and her daughter, director Lina Soualem (“Their Algeria”) as they arrive to talk about Soualem’s documentary, “Bye Bye Tiberias.”

As Palestine’s submission for Best International Feature at the Academy Awards, the film traces four generations of women in Abbass’ family, now living in exile and starting anew.

Currently based in France, Abbass left Tiberias, a small city on the Sea of Galilee, thirty years ago to pursue her life and acting career overseas. At a time when it wasn’t a thing for women to do, Abbass says she broke away from her family to follow her dreams.

Although there were cries of “Long Live Palestine” following the recent screening at the Marrakech International Film Festival, the upheaval in their homeland would not dominate the conversation for the two women who sit together like tiny birds, dwarfed by the giant red velvet sofa they sit upon for this interview.

Stories about her family are not new for Soualem. Her first documentary “Their Algeria” was about her grandparents and their journey from Algeria and subsequent life in France, told as they separated after 62 years together.

“When I was showing my first film at festivals, a lot of people asked if I would be making a film about the Palestinian side of my family,” Soualem said. “It was difficult to tackle because there’s a lot of tragedy. But at the time, I was already filming my mother and grandmother.”

Soualem’s mother said the film began a journey into a past she never really left behind.

“Lina put before me realities and questions she was asking herself for which she did not have answers,” Abbass said. “Answers that could have come from me, but I didn’t have answers to everything.” Abbass said her daughter then went further into her roots with her grandmother (Abbass’ mother), “stitching together the story of my grandma.” Abbass said the entire endeavor is “Lina’s path and journey, interviewing me as part of this lineage of women in our family.”

Abbass said the decision to leave home wasn’t easy. “I don’t know if I can sum up in one sentence what home and belonging is,” she said. “The decision to leave the ones you love isn’t easy. But at the same time, you make your decisions, because there is a survival element to it, to fulfill things and establish oneself.” Abbass said she felt she couldn’t fulfill her dreams to achieve what she wanted in life with the convergence of social and political pressures. “It was too much for me,” she said, “so I left with that notion of home and the notion of belonging.” The actress said her director daughter brought her back to face these questions. “It’s not something new to me. It’s something I lived with all my life, through my engagements and roles. I never stopped wondering about the sense of it all.”

Being directed by her daughter, the veteran actress said, was a new experience for her.

“I’m used to interpreting roles that aren’t me,” Abbass said. “In this case, it was an exercise I’m not used to.” She said the process was “going into my person and exploring things from my personal world, in front of the camera.” Abbass said her daughter would ask her questions and she would respond as if talking with an acquaintance. “She was looking for a real image, concerning an emotion and how I really lived it. It wasn’t easy.” Abbass says it took time to establish trust between the mother and her daughter; and time for the actress mother to understand what her director daughter was digging for. Abbass says it took time to establish that trust between them.

For Soualem, the scope of the film has more to offer than simply insights into her own family. “Telling this story helps preserve Palestinian culture and memory, as well,” she said, adding “There is a need to transmit the stories before they are forgotten and go into oblivion,” she said.

“Bye, Bye Tiberias” premiered in Venice in September, before the most recent conflict erupted on October 7.

“What I’m writing and seeing today is the same as what I observed six years ago when I began working on this film,” said Soualem. “The dehumanization. The silent story. There is a need to transmit these stories before they are forgotten and go into oblivion.” Soualem pointed to the reality that the memory of her people and the memory of her family no longer exist in the place where they lived. “It’s vital for me to transmit this. They are a people that have been erased. They are excluded from the official history.”

Abbass says the making of her film and the decision to come to Marrakech was made long before the current outbreak of war. She says it was not her intention, “But when you see this movie now you have an answer to what is happening.”

The current situation hits close to home for Soualem. “If my mother hadn’t married my father,” she said, “with the history of my Palestinian grandmother and grandfather, I could today be a descendant of a family struggling in any refugee camp in Gaza.”

This interview was conducted at the Marrakech International Film Festival.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *