For her second film, Lina Soualem has carried on the tradition of making her production a family affair. In Their Algeria (2020), the young filmmaker follows the migration of her paternal relatives from Algeria to France in the 1950s. This time, for Bye Bye Tiberias (2023), she follows the flight of her mother, Hiam Abbass, from Palestine and the matriarchs and aunts that came before Soualem and stayed in their homeland. 

Abbass, a decorated actress whose English-language credits include Munich, Succession, Blade Runner: 2049, Ramy, and whose Arabic-language films include The Lemon Tree, The Syrian Bride and Gaza Mon Amour, is the protagonist of Bye Bye Tiberias, which was nominated to represent Palestine at the 2024 Oscars among other glowing critical praise. The film grapples movingly with the struggles and joys of diasporic being, with exile and notions of return, and with the intergenerational nature of trauma and love between mothers, daughters and sisters. 

Soualem began working on Bye Bye Tiberias in 2017, and released it in Venice International Film Festival in September 2023, but of course the film has taken on a new imperative weight since October 7th. She inherited archival footage from her father, Zinedine Soualem, who filmed Palestine in the 1990s and her Algerian family in France. In contrast to the silence of Soualem’s grandparents in ‘Their Algeria’, regarding the traumatic history of colonisation, the filmmaker felt that her maternal family actively transmitted their stories and history. “I needed to film and tell the stories of the four generations of women in my family,” Soualem tells me, “because I felt that they were the guardians of the temple of our memory, who kept their history alive. And that they managed to do it despite chaos around them, despite being displaced, despite being deprived of their identity, of their rights as Palestinians.”

Hiam Abbass, born in the village of Deir Hanna in Galilee, was one of ten children and one of eight daughters. The Emmy-nominated actor left Palestine in the 1980s to pursue her career in Europe, flying the nest from her sisters who kindly tease her in the film for leaving them behind for “Hollywood” (which Abbass would indeed eventually reach). It wasn’t the first time a woman of the family had migrated. Soualem’s great-grandmother Um Ali and grandmother Nemat were forcibly displaced from their hometown, Tiberias, during the 1948 Nakba, while Soualem’s great aunt Hosnieh found herself stuck across the border in Syria after ‘48, separated from her family for 30 years.

In one of many poetic lines in the film, French-born Palestinian Algerian Soualem states, “I was born of this departure, of this fracture. Between two worlds”. Her bilingual experience depicted in the film, with Abbass speaking in Arabic and Soualem replying in French, holds up a mirror so perfectly to the experiences of children of immigrants worldwide. But rather than seeing her ‘broken’ Arabic or Abbass’ French as lacking, Soualem insists “It’s not that we have half languages, it’s that we have two languages, and we can switch from one to the other.” In other words, being a cultural hybrid is a strength, not a weakness. 

Soualem feels as French as she does Algerian and Palestinian. She’s always resisted the wavering between Arab and French, she says, “because people were asking us to choose, and I always felt like choosing would be like depriving myself of other parts of my body […] I always felt I had to please [others] so that I can fit into the perceptions that they had defined for us.” In this sense, making films has allowed Soualem to fight against binary identity markers or neat boxes by highlighting the intermediary spaces which children of immigrants exist in. “Instead of feeling like we’re not here or not there, we are in a new place, we try to create our own language,” she expands. “And we can use all these identities as a way to reinvent ourselves in the margin and exist in the centre.”

The process of making the film involved uncovering fragmented family stories, which left Soualem feeling as if she was “recomposing a puzzle. And sometimes one piece would allow all the rest to be clearer and stronger.” The more she excavated these womens’ stories and the details of their intimate struggles within the collective struggle, she felt that they metamorphosed into heroines of their own epic dramas. Soualem converses, whether in the present or through time, with her maternal elders, uncovering deeply elaborate and sometimes quiet or tucked away stories. Not only did Soualem learn so much more about the personal stories of the women of her family that she had a strong connection to, she also deepened her understanding of her mother. She tells me she always  thought that Abbass became the woman that she is today after leaving Palestine, “while arriving in Europe alone and having to build herself. What I realised while making the film,” Soualem says, “is that she was already this woman, she was writing poetry when she was a teenager. All the aspirations were already there, the strength was already there.”

The film immortalises the memories of its cast of women; Nemat, Um Ali, Hosnieh and Hiam Abbass through the use of home movies, institutional archival footage, and Soualem’s own filmed observations, amid a lack and a deliberate destruction of Palestinian archives. “These images are my memory’s treasure, I don’t want them to fade,” narrates Soualem in the film, heralding the necessity of archiving as an act of resistance and a ritual of honouring those who came and who resisted before us. “Archives are vital,” Soualem tells me, and they provide the context of stories that are not officially written or recognised…each archive becomes so precious because it’s another proof of our existence.” More so, they are sentimental and they make us feel like we belong to something beyond ourselves. 

Tragically, much of the Algerian archives were filmed by the French military, making access difficult and expensive.  Palestinian archives are not dissimilar; scattered and fragmented, captured by various western military presences. Access to these archives is limited, and finding them, Soualem argues, is a revelation that proves the existence of a diverse society in Palestine before 1948.

“It’s our duty to go and get these archives because if we don’t tell our stories,” Soualem says, “we are erased from history.” We know that history is dictated by the victors, and the history we have access to is full of gaps and holes. “So it’s our duty to tell our story,” says Soualem, “the people that have the possibility to do it should do it. And this is what I’m trying to do.”

Despite deepening Islamophobia in France, which was already very present, and a rising right-wing, the film had an outstanding reception, with over 60,000 people watching in French theatres (over triple the audience of Soualem’s first film). She credits the film’s universal themes of family, memory, displacement, and sisterhood to its success. “When you talk about the Arab experience, people think it’s not universal. Why would the European experience be more universal?,” the filmmaker asks. “[We] have to fight against how [western societies] transformed the concept of universality. And they deprived us of it.”

The women in the film are strong, in the least cliched sense. The various journeys, departures and ruptures they each experienced in their lives, both personal and political, left in each of them a sense of stoicism, of endurance and of the ability to move through the world with persevering love. “My mother talks a lot about forgiveness as a great value,” says Soualem, who was already close with her mother but whose relationship with Abbass took on a new meaning once she began filming and interrogating her mother’s past. “I think [forgiveness] is a great value held by most Algerian immigrants and North African immigrants in France as much as Palestinian immigrants. When you see their children and grandchildren, and all the great things they are bringing to the world, knowing everything they have gone through, they’ve never ended up transmitting to us revenge or hatred. And it’s a miracle. Wow, it’s actually a miracle.”

As Soualem wraps up her touring in the UK, in the coming months the film keeps on being screened in different countries across North America, Australia, North Africa, Europe, Latin America and the Middle-East. “I consider myself as very privileged,” concludes Soualem, “because [my parents] offered me something that they never had as children. So for me, it’s a duty to keep on remembering, because everything I do is thanks to my ancestors who have fought against colonialism.”

Soualem hopes to work on a fiction film in the future but is currently continuing to give voice to the stories of the Palestinian women in her family through ‘Bye Bye Tiberias’ and finds it a priority to carry the ever glowing torch of Nemat, Um Ali, Hosnieh and her own mother. 

BYE BYE TIBERIAS is released to independent cinemas across UK and Ireland on 28 June. For screening details at a cinema near you see https://www.tapecollective.co.uk/feature-films/bye-bye-tiberias. To find out about screenings in the US see  https://www.wmm.com/catalog/film/bye-bye-tiberias/