'Bye Bye Tiberias' Finds Sweetness and Strength Amidst Palestine's Struggle

Directed by Lina Soualem

Starring Hiam Abbass

Photo: Frida Marzouk / Beall Productions

BY Nathan AbrahaPublished Jan 23, 2024


Bye Bye Tiberias, director Lina Soualem's second feature, tells the journey of four generations of women in the filmmaker's family, including her mother, famed actress Hiam Abbass (of Succession and Blade Runner 2049), as well as her aunts, grandmother, great-grandmother and Lina herself.

At the age of 23, Hiam left her childhood village of Deir Hanna to pursue her dream of acting in France, a decision that separated her from her family in both distance and philosophy, to the point they grew distant for many years. All that changed when Lina was born, as she, according to Hiam, was an angel who reconnected her with her family.

The documentary's skillful inclusion of home video allows the audience to become part of this renewed connection. Using mostly footage of a 1992 family trip to Deir Hanna shot by Lina's father, actor Zinedine Soualem, simple yet memorable moments — such as a young Lina playing with her great-grandmother, peals of laughter from a family dinner and Hiam taking her daughter to swim in the beautiful Lake Tiberias — bring the audience along, as if experiencing the intimacy of the Abbass family alongside the young director.

Bye Bye Tiberias recalls the stories that are so often stuck between the wrinkly cracks of dusty family photo albums, the stories that we were too young to remember but never hear the end of, and those that perish along with older generations. Bye Bye Tiberias reminds us of what matters and beyond.

Amidst the smiles and warm family scenes, an uneasy feeling builds — a silent realization.

Outside the cozy warmth of this footage lies a deeply Palestinian tale. One of loss and uncertainty, with the looming and constant worry of when this happiness will be interrupted and all will cease to exist.

With the subtle and gentle hands of Lina, Bye Bye Tiberias humanizes a story that is often overlooked: a glimpse inside a Palestinian family's life. It's something that news broadcasts and headlines can never show. The film reminds audiences that, despite the horrors this land has faced, Palestine has and never will cease.

Through the women who stand with her and within her, Lina manages one of the hardest feats in documentary filmmaking: weaving the camera not as an intrusion but as an instrument illuminating what exists around her subjects. In many ways, the story of Bye Bye Tiberias is one attempting to stand still, to grasp itself against a disappearing forever.

Throughout the film, Hiam considers the many themes surrounding Tiberias, most profoundly in relation to the women in her family. Hiam reflects on the effects of Operation Hiram in 1948, which saw her grandmother Um Ali, her husband Hosni Tabari, and their children expelled from Tiberias — how the life Um Ali knew had disappeared overnight. It faces the reality that, with every generation of Palestinians, something disappears like a slowly fading sunset.

We see old footage of Hiam walking young Lina as beige uniformed soldiers patrol the streets with the sounds of planes buzzing above. In the film, military presence serves as the film's silent antagonist, an unnerving phantom.

Accepted grief over their history prevails across the film, but Lina stops short of making this the film's dominant message. Instead, she takes great care to continue focusing on her core subject: her mother. In a touching scene, we see a younger Hiam, tired from the day, lying sound asleep next to Lina. It offers a pause from the archival footage of destruction and war, a scene of profound richness wherein, no matter what has befallen and what is ahead, a mother and daughter find peace alongside one another.

Bye Bye Tiberias stands as a story of survival against the cruelty of circumstance and the stubborn refusal to disappear. The film thoughtfully illustrates the importance of preservation of culture, customs, family history and humanity, while being very much aware of the obstacles, suffering and pain of staring at a future that becomes cloudier with every passing moment. Bye Bye Tiberias is a strong rejection of this fate.

(JHR Films)

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