Bye Bye Tiberias: Succession star Hiam Abbass and filmmaker daughter Lina Soualem on representing Palestine at the Oscars
For Lina Soualem’s clan, both cinema and pride in their Arab heritage is a family affair. Lina is a young Paris-based filmmaker, known for directing introspective documentaries that explore family roots.
Her sister, Mouna, is an up-and-coming actress, known for Disney+’s Oussekine and Dina Amer’s You Resemble Me. Their father, Zinedine Soualem, is a well-known French-Algerian actor, with a three-decade-long career in French films, TV and theatre.
Their mother is the inimitable Palestinian-French actress Hiam Abbass, who also has a long career in film and TV, and reached worldwide fame in recent years with her roles as Marcia Roy in HBO’s Succession and as Maysa Hassan in Hulu’s Ramy.
"Despite the film not trying to be explicitly political, the exploration of everyday Palestinian life and of the intergenerational strength of women in Bye Bye Tiberias invokes a political act of resistance in itself – against the erasure of Palestinian identity"
But with Hollywood being on an unusual break due to a historic actors’ and writers’ strike, Hiam Abbass has been busy working on indie feature films and promoting her starring role in her daughter Lina’s documentary, which stars Hiam Abbass as Hiam Abbass.
That’s right – this new documentary, called Bye Bye Tiberias, is a moving and meditative film by Lina Soualem that explores what gets passed on across four generations of Palestinian women.
Lina follows her mother, Hiam, on her personal journey returning to the Palestinian village of Deir Hanna in Galilee, where she grew up and left for Paris in her twenties to pursue an acting career.
“What I wanted to do was to link intimate stories with a more collective story,” Lina told The New Arab. “It was really important for me to talk about Palestinian women and their lives and experiences, because the story of Palestine, and of Palestinian lives, remains untold.”
Bye Bye Tiberias is sold internationally by Lightdox, received grants from Arte, Doha Film Institute and Arab Fund for Arts and Culture, and is produced by France’s Beall Productions, Belgium’s Altitude 100 Production and Versus Productions, and Palestine’s Philistine Films.
The film had its world premiere at Venice’s Giornate degli Autori before heading to Toronto in mid-September. It will have its London premiere at the London Film Festival on October 7th, and it has further screenings planned at festivals that include Chicago, DOK Leipzig, and Montreal.
"For Lina, representing Palestine at the Oscars is a 'great honour' and for Hiam, having her daughter not only continue the family business in the film industry but to have her represent her Palestinian motherland at the Oscars is a great source of pride"
But in the most important news to highlight, the film has been selected to represent Palestine in the race for the 2024 Oscars. Members of the Academy will assess submissions from every country and select five films for Best International Feature in the coming months.
Their five-film shortlist is to be announced on January 23. Palestine has already been nominated twice in this category, in 2005 for Hany Abu-Assad’s Paradise Now and in 2013 for Hany Abu-Assad’s Omar.
For Lina, representing Palestine at the Oscars is a “great honour” and for Hiam, having her daughter not only continue the family business in the film industry but to have her represent her Palestinian motherland at the Oscars is a great source of pride.
“Part of the transmission that I tried to work hard on is transmitting to Lina the Palestinian side in me, so suddenly to see Lina introducing Palestine at the Oscars… It means like maybe internationally I succeeded in my mission,” Hiam Abbass told The New Arab.
This is only Lina Soualem’s second feature film after her debut Their Algeria, a 2020 documentary that explored her father’s side of the family and unpacked themes of exile and colonial trauma in an Algerian context. Motivated by audience members to explore her mother’s side of the family, Lina embarked on Bye Bye Tiberias.
In this self-exploratory documentary, Lina was aided by masses of archive footage her parents kept of their time regularly visiting Palestine for family reunions.
The film – which features almost no men at all – mixes footage of Hiam as a young woman in a huge family of 10 children (and only two brothers), of Lina and Mouna visiting Palestine as children in the 1990s (filmed by their father Zinedine), plus recent footage filmed by Lina and cinematographers Thomas Brémond and Frida Marzouk.
It also features archive videos showing how Galilee looked like during Lina’s grandmother’s time, a generation that experienced the Nakba, or catastrophe – referring to the ethnic cleansing of Palestine in 1948.
While a film documenting the everyday life of successive generations of Palestinians from 1948 to today could have easily been explicitly political or critical of Israel, the film avoids this trope and rather focuses on family, motherhood and community life.
These themes are at the forefront of the film’s narrative, while the politics that inevitably imbue Palestinian history remain in the background.
“Palestine is a home for me... It's the place where I buried my childhood, my dreams, my teens, and everything I grew up with…”
As Lina says: “If I'm doing films, it's because I want to be able to tell the story of lives and the story of the feelings of people, of the characters living in a certain political context. I don't think you can deprive any Palestinian character of any political context, but I consider that everything is political. It's not only linked to Palestine – because being an Arab in France is political, being a Haitian in Toronto is political.”
In Bye Bye Tiberias, we find Hiam Abbass sometimes uncomfortable and shy in front of the camera – confronted with the vulnerability this role of merely being herself involves. For actors, it is often easier to play someone else than it is to play yourself.
This role pushes Hiam to not only lay bare her past, but also to look back at how her Palestinian homeland has changed, and reflect on everything she inherited from her mother and the generation before her – just as Lina meditates on this herself.
At one point in the film, Hiam says (in French): “I think we become mothers but we never know how to separate ourselves from a mother.” Yet it is these vulnerable moments that make Hiam human, whether it is the scenes when she reads us poems she wrote as a teenager, or when she revisits the streets of Deir Hanna with her sister.
“Palestine is a home for me,” Hiam says. “It's the place where I buried my childhood, my dreams, my teens, and everything I grew up with… But we see that I left because of certain reasons that I don't think really changed in the village, so going back to that place was not always an easy thing.”
Despite having spent most of her life in France, Hiam Abbass says, “My personal identity is still Palestinian… this movie just shows the complexity of that identity.”
Despite the film not trying to be explicitly political, the exploration of everyday Palestinian life and of the intergenerational strength of women in Bye Bye Tiberias invokes a political act of resistance in itself – against the erasure of Palestinian identity.
As Lina explains that she aspired “to reactivate the transmission between generations to understand what was passed on and how families and relationships perpetuate in the context of displacement and exile,” she tells a story that is at once universal and on the other intrinsically Palestinian.
Hiam says, “This movie is really – before anything else – about the journey of women, who just happen to be Palestinian.”
But Bye Bye Tiberias also echoes what the great Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish once said:
“My birthplace does not exist. You know that I was born in a village that does not exist. Settlements were built on top of its ruins... I write to try to say that the occupation will not crush our souls and won't stop us from freely expressing our humanity. There is on this land that which what makes life worth living.”
In this way, Bye Bye Tiberias marks itself as a defining work of contemporary Palestinian cinema and will continue to be so on the road to the Oscars and beyond.
Alexander Durie is a Multimedia Journalist for The New Arab, working across video, photography, and feature writing
Follow him on Twitter: @alexander_durie