Lina Soualem’s Bye, Bye Tiberias is an attentive, affectionate, and deeply personal exploration of the tragic (but often equally joyful) maternal lineage of her own family. Beginning as a story about Lina’s own childhood visits to Palestine with her mother, actress Hiam Abbass, Bye Bye Tiberias quickly into a poetic attempt to trace, document, and reimagine the history of the generations of women before Lina.
Tasked with the process of making sense of multiple diasporic movements and separations within the family, Soualem spends much of the film trying to understand, or at the very least sketch in, her own past as well as the pasts of her mother, grandmother, and ancestors prior with stories that have often only been passed on orally, tentatively, and partially.
Soualem’s documentary remembers and maintains her family’s history through a multimedia process; filming the living members of her family (especially her mother), accessing archival Palestinian footage, referencing her own childhood home videos, and writing some fictionalized imaginings of the women in the family, which are often performed by Abbass.
I was fortunate enough to speak to Hiam Abbass and Lina Soualem about their work on this documentary and their respective feelings about its creation— both behind and in front of the camera.
VERONICA PHILLIPS: Lina, there’s a remarkable amount of home video of you as a child in this film. Was this footage the catalyst for this documentary? Or were the home videos something you started interacting with later in the process?
LINA SOUALEM: I think for me it was really a starting point. When I watched [these videos] again as an adult, it was like meeting a new character, and I realized how the family is marked by a strong feminine presence. It was really important for me to use these images […] I wanted to give [these women] the ability to exist again in these places and their memory to be connected to the collective memory.
VP: I would love to hear a little bit more about your process of finding the archival footage that was included in this documentary. How did you go about looking for it?
LS: So there’s a lot of different funds because the Palestine archives are really scattered around the globe. You have the British mandate. You have a lot of national state funds, the German archives, the French archive. So it’s very difficult because you have to go to all these places to acquire archives of your own people’s history […] It took a couple of years. So the idea is to watch them and try to understand how they were filmed, and to be able to reuse them with a different gaze. And that is the richness of the archives, I think, is that you can use them over and over again. It can also be the danger because you can use them and use them—
HIAM ABBASS [interjecting]: Wrongly.
LS: You have a responsibility when you use them.
VP: Did adding a camera shift the natural rapport with your extended family and mother at all at first?
LS: It was easy because they’re not used to film sets, so they didn’t really see the camera […] But then it was hard in the sense that they would do things like pass in front and hand me coffee while I was filming. The hardest was maybe my mother, because she is used to professional cameras and professional film sets. So talking to me with a camera was not so easy at first.
HA: At the beginning, I remember Lina would just ask me questions, and I was talking to her as if she was a journalist […] As an actress, I speak a lot about my experiences, and some people ask me questions about my personal process or where I come from or how I got into this [acting]. I was answering [Lena] almost as a journalist. […] So it took a while until I got really used to this exercise, which wasn’t an easy one.
VP: A lot of this film explored the process of telling multi-generational stories. Did you feel a pressure or responsibility to get these histories and experiences totally accurate?
LS: I think I felt the responsibility to get it right. I felt the responsibility to stay true to their experience, and to not go too deep into intimate things that didn’t really bring anything to the story. So I had a lot of boundaries that I set with myself. By putting the intimate stories in a more collective story, it allows us to take distance. So that was important. And of course while writing the stories, I was trying to get the closest to what had happened. But sometimes you don’t have all the information. So you have to imagine, and that’s why I also took some liberty when I said “I imagine her doing this, and imagining him saying…” This is when I took a bit of liberty because I wanted to give a bit of a poetic aspect to their stories. It was important for me to write it [their narratives] with some lyricism, some poetry.
VP: You mentioned this idea of trying to properly imagine the scale of what your family has been through in the last few generations. Do you think creating this has helped better grasp your family’s experiences within Palestine?
HA: I think there is so much imagination in our history and in my story. There’s a lot of details that stay unsolved in my memory because they were inherited. […] So this film is one testimony, and I’m happy it exists now. It gives life to those who left with their story, like the hidden stories, and it makes them maybe clearer. Did this film answer everything? I don’t think so. But it’s a process, and it’s part of that process.