Bye Bye Tiberias

VERDICT: Directed by Hiam Abbass’s daughter Lina Soualem, this beautifully layered, quietly intelligent documentary explores her female-centric family’s experiences of dispossession and exile following the 1948 Nakba, seeking to break the silence surrounding trauma.

PALESTINE’S SUBMISSION FOR BEST INTERNATIONAL FEATURE ACADEMY AWARD

Lina Soualem digs into her Palestinian family’s matrilineal past in her beautifully modulated, emotionally candid documentary Bye Bye Tiberias.

That her mother is Hiam Abbass will be a major selling point, but the actress’ celebrity is a minor element in what’s a moving look at the Palestinian yearning for home and the catastrophic knock-on effect of the Nakba, when Israel dispossessed hundreds of thousands. Abbas grew up with stories of loss, and although she eventually left for France in a bid to distance herself from the trauma, she and her daughter came to realize escape is impossible. “Don’t open the gate to past sorrows” was the family motto, but hiding them doesn’t reduce the cancer, and Soualem’s respectful yet probing exploration highlights the melancholic residue of memory that connects women down the generational divide. Festivals, showcases and streaming sites will get considerable traction from this quietly intelligent film.

Soualem (Their Algeria) cleverly opens and closes with her mother, first in 1992 and then today, pointing out the geographical centrality of Galilee, from where you can see Jordan, Lebanon and Syria, countries that received huge numbers of refugees and yet never made them feel welcome. Abbass was born in Deir Hana, close to where her ancestors are from on Lake Tiberias (sometimes called the Sea of Galilee), hearing her mother Nemat and grandmother Um Ali – who she remarkably resembles – refer to their lives before the Nakba with a sense of heartbreaking loss. Forced to flee their home on the lakeshore, the family moved 30 kilometers west, inside the Israeli border, but Um Ali’s husband Hosni went mad and the story of his searching for his livestock continues to haunt his descendants.

Nemat was a teacher who raised ten children, and while neither she nor Um Ali would talk much about their experiences, characteristically believing it would protect loved ones from their sadness, that kind of silence acted like a black hole, consuming energy and generating unanswered questions. Abbass’ response was to leave the family home and move to Jerusalem, defying the norms of her community to become an actress. Her rebellion continued when she married an Englishman who taught at Beirzeit University and then, when that didn’t work out, she moved to Paris, marrying Zinedine Soualem and giving birth to Lina and Mouna.

Bye Bye Tiberias implies that it was Lina Soualem’s desire to understand how the cycle of trauma affected her family that was the catalyst for her mother to voice her pained recollections of the past, full of ruptures but also joyful intimacies with her own grandmother, mother and siblings. To this end, the director wrote out histories of Um Ali and Nemat for her mother to read, which becomes a psychologically astute way of getting Abbass to engage with memories that can be difficult to have exposed, especially for an actress who keeps her private life private. What works so well here is the connection between mother and daughter, the way Soualem takes her mother along this path, holding her hand in a sense as they explore the legacy of the Occupation within the context of their female-centric family.

The result is a skillfully layered documentary that looks at ways women cope with displacement and exile by whatever means society and family allow: for Nemat it was by becoming a teacher as well as mother, while for Abbass it was to break free from expectations and escape further, though she maintained a longing for connection. Soualem cleverly explores these ideas with her mother and aunts following Nemat’s death when she puts photographs up on a wall, using them as a kind of storyboard to trigger memories and associations. Among the most painful are ones of Nemat’s older sister Hosnieh, who fled into Syria after the Nakba and was separated from her family for decades, trapped in the Yarmouk refugee camp within Damascus for thirty years before she secretly crossed the border into Galilee for a brief reunion with her family.

Soualem’s editor Gladys Joujou does an excellent job bringing together VHS and super-8 footage as well as archival images of Tiberias from 1940, allowing the viewer to visualize a location so meaningful to the family that was denied them for so long. Though nothing is said, a shot of Abbass and Soualem visiting the lake while next to them stands an Orthodox Jewish family powerfully evokes questions of belonging and exclusion.

Director: Lina Soualem
Screenplay: Lina Soualem, Nadine Naous, in collaboration with Gladys Joujou
With: Hiam Abbass, Lina Soualem
Producer: Jean-Marie Nizan
Co-producers: Guillaume Malandrin
Cinematography: Frida Marzouk, Thomas Brémond, Lina Soualem
Editing: Gladys Joujou
Music: Amine Bouhafa
Sound: Ludovic Escallier, Lina Soualem, Gervaise Demeure, Julie Tribout, Benoit Biral
Production companies: Beall Productions (France), Altitude 100 (Belgium), Versus Productions (Belgium), Philistine Films (Palestine)
World sales: Lightdox
Venue: Venice (Giornate degli autori); Toronto (TIFF Bell Lightbox)
In Arabic, French
82 minutes

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