In order to find her personal identity and voice as a filmmaker, Lina Soualem first had to look into her past. “I couldn’t move forward in my life without going back,” she says.
It’s what led her to create Bye Bye Tiberias, a moving documentary where Lina — along with her mother, renowned actress Hiam Abbass (best-known to many now for her supporting role on the TV phenomenon Succession) — explore the lives and legacies of four generations of Palestinian women in their family.
Ahead of the film’s NYC Premiere on January 12, I spoke with Lina Soualem about her creative process and the resilience and unyielding spirit of her maternal forebearers.
The following conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity and brevity.
Reanne Rodrigues: You tell multi-generational stories of the women in your mother’s family in Bye Bye Tiberias. How did you select which anecdotes to share?
Lina Soualem: I knew a lot about the story of the women of my mother’s family, but there were still some pieces of the puzzle that I needed to reconstitute, and what was important for me was to explore how exile and displacement affects family relationships and the most intimate bonds between different generations.
For instance, I wanted to understand why my mother left [to pursue her dream of being an actress abroad] and how the women of my family inspired her or refrained her from doing what she wanted. Did she struggle against them or with them? And what did she inherit from them that she transmitted on to me?
Focusing on each one’s intimate path was, for me, the way to tell the story of Palestinian women, because it adds to the collective memory that has been completely erased or silenced.
RR: You are the first woman in your mother’s family not born in Palestine, yet you feel a part of this powerful female lineage. In the film you say: “My mother chose to leave. I was born of this departure. This fracture. Between two worlds.” How has your past defined who you are today?
LS: In order for me to find my place in the society in which I live and was born into — which is France — and the different countries of which my family is from (my father’s family is Algerian and my mother’s family is Palestinian), I needed to dig up and reconnect to the past and find the source of what was transmitted to me. How have these multiple identities shaped me?
In French society, having multiple identities is not something that is valued. Speaking Arabic is not something that is valued. A child in school that speaks Arabic as a second language is not considered bilingual. I knew that these cultures had shaped me and taught me so much — values such as love, family, humor, and forgiveness — and so I couldn’t continue living in a society that didn’t value them.
I wanted to reappropriate myself, my heritage, my story, and tell it in my own words — to visualize people in my mother’s family who were marginalized in order to give them back their place.
RR: A team of women collaborated with you to create this documentary. Why was that important in your filmmaking process?
LS: It was natural for me. My editor [Gladys Joujou] worked on my first film Their Algeria. And my co-writer [Nadine Naous] is a close friend of my mother and me. I also worked with a French-Tunisian woman [Frida Marzouk] who was my Director of Photography.
I couldn’t make a film about women without having women that know me, women who were also from the Middle East North African region that could understand what it meant for an Arab woman to grow up in such a family, society, and political context. Also, they all spoke Arabic which was really important when it came to watching the footage and understanding the poetry and conversations. I also couldn’t film the women of my family and their intimate stories without bringing a woman into their home — someone who they could feel safe around and who could understand their language and culture.
RR: Your mother, Hiam Abbass, has achieved much success with her international acting career, but not much was said about this in the film. Was that a conscious choice?
LS: From the very beginning, it was clear that this film wasn’t a film about my mother alone, or her as an actress, or her acting career. It’s a film about four generations of women and their paths. And so the only stories I tell of my mother are everything she went through before she left and not her current life because it’s not a biopic film.
RR: Did adding a camera shift the natural rapport with your extended family and especially your mother who’s a renowned actress? Did it affect the storytelling?
LS: I have filmed both my maternal and paternal families, and haven’t found it hard to introduce the camera. My father was filming a lot in the 90s on VHS, and so the family was used to having the presence of the camera. And with my mother being an actress, it’s not weird for my aunts, and grandmother that I too hold a camera or work in cinema.
Of course, you’re always afraid that people wouldn’t be at ease, but because I was alone most of the time (or sometimes with the cinematographer) and we didn’t have a big set; it seemed like they forgot the presence of the camera and were really in dialogue with me.
RR: Bye Bye Tiberias deals with several themes — culture, identity, exile, displacement — which resonate with the current political situation in Palestine. What do you hope audiences take away from the film?
LS: When I started working on the film almost 6 years ago, I wanted to give back to the women of my mother’s family their humanity that has been completely denied. To give them back the right to complexity because this is what it means to be human. To have a complex path, contradictions, emotions… And I really wanted to give them back their memory and [the feeling of belonging] in the places from which their histories are completely erased.
Having these women’s stories exist in a film already [means] so much, and I just want the audience to be able to connect with them, to feel their pain, to laugh with them, to understand them, to follow their path, and to see how heroic they are. Palestinians are often portrayed in a very stigmatized way, and here they show the world that Palestinians are artists, poets, writers, and filmmakers too.
© Reanne Rodrigues (1/16/24) – Special for FF2 Media
LEARN MORE/DO MORE
Bye Bye Tiberias is currently screening at the Firehouse: DCTV’s Cinema for Documentary Film in Manhattan. Q&A sessions with Lina Soualem and Hiam Abbass are also available. Purchase your tickets here.
CREDITS & PERMISSIONS
Featured Photo: Hiam Abbass with her baby Lina on their first visit to Hiam’s grandmother Um Ali.
Middle Photo: Hiam Abbass as “Salma Zidane” is surrounded by reporters in a crucial scene from LEMON TREE (2008). Photo Credit: Eran Riklis Prod. / Heimatfilm / Mact Prod. / Riva Filmproduktion / Album / Alamy Stock Photo. Image ID: P2MJJK
LEMON TREE received international acclaim, and Hiam Abbass became the first Palestinian woman to receive a Best Actress award from the Israel Film Academy. Click here to read a review of LEMON TREE by FF2 Editor-in-Chief Jan Lisa Huttner. And click here to read Jan’s interview with Hiam at the 2005 Chicago International Film Festival.
Bottom Photo: Hiam Abbass (left) and Lina Soualem (right) look out over the hills of the West Bank.
Still photos from the film Bye Bye Tiberias provided by MPRM Communications and used with their permission. All Rights Reserved.