It’s a family film – memories captured on film that revive past joys and sufferings, shots of a land on which generations of women have lived. But also the story, gradually revealed, of the revolt of a young woman who resolves to leave her land and her family to escape the destiny that has been prepared for her. A tangle of stories, sweet or painful, those that we tell or hide when the family gets together.
The land that the young woman, named Hiam Abbas, left has several names: the Abbas family comes from Tiberias, in Galilee. His grandmother gave birth to her children in Palestine occupied by the English, his mother lived and worked thirty kilometers from Tiberias, in Deir Hanna, a village where some of the Palestinian inhabitants of the city, expelled in 1948, were found a home and an Israeli passport. The family album is also a history book.
Lina Soualem’s first film, Leur Algérie (2021), recounted the late separation of her paternal grandparents, the father and mother of actor Zinedine Soualem, who had crossed the Mediterranean to settle in Thiers (Puy- de-Dôme). We find in Bye Bye Tiberias the extreme gentleness of the filmmaker’s gaze and her insatiable, almost childish curiosity, her inflexible desire to make people say what has until now been kept silent.
The irrepressible energy of Hiam Abbas
Lina Soualem thus makes the interrogation of her mother the backbone of Bye Bye Tiberias. To become an actress, to keep her freedom as a woman, Hiam Abbas left for Europe – London, then Paris. She has become a protean figure, who can play the leading role in a Tunisian or Palestinian auteur film, advise Alejandro Gonzalez Iñarritu or Steven Spielberg on a major Hollywood production, or stage a version of Medea with the companions of ‘Emmaus than becoming the greedy wife of Logan Roy in the series Succession .
Bye Bye Tiberias is devoted in part to analyzing the DNA of this irrepressible energy. Um Ali, the actress’s grandmother, a seamstress, alone provided for the education of her children after the death of the family patriarch, driven mad with grief by the loss of his house. His mother, Neemat, a teacher, was preparing to graduate from a Catholic school in Jerusalem when she was expelled in 1948. She taught while raising Hiam Abbas’ nine brothers and sisters.
By recounting, with more or less reluctance, these episodes to his daughter, who finds images in the family and historical archives that make the words resonate, Hiam Abbas gives the reasons which pushed her to set sail: the condition women in the small society of Deir Hanna, but also the feeling of confinement, of incompleteness that the status of second-class citizen gives rise to.
A land that is no longer theirs
Tragedy creeps into every interstice of this story. Thus appears the figure of aunt Hasniyeh, who in the flight caused by the evacuation of Tiberias by the Israeli army continued her journey and crossed the border with Syria, without knowing that she would never be able to find her family again, until Hiam Abbas, now free to move around, finally came to visit him in his refugee camp. We understand that this gap between the Palestinians who remained on a land that is no longer theirs and those who were driven even further away is also not unrelated to Hiam Abbas’ decision to leave Deir Hanna: his departure finally gives access to the hitherto forbidden Arab world.
This is how we hear more and more clearly the countersong which gives these gentle, often nostalgic images a strength, a violence that we cannot ignore. This film is not only made of memories and regrets, like its protagonist it is driven by anger, certainly contained, reasoned, but incurable.
Since October 7, Lina Soualem and Hiam Abbas have not wanted to speak about the new act of the tragedy which is being played out at the moment. Bye Bye Tiberias goes back to its source.