“VHS tapes from the 1990s opened the door to another world”: Lina Soualem on her Palestinian family memoir Bye Bye Tiberias

Winner of Best Documentary at last year’s BFI London Film Festival, Bye Bye Tiberias is a cinematic memoir delving into home-movie footage tracing lives of displacement and exile for four generations of women in a Palestinian family.

Bye Bye Tiberias (2023)Frida Marzouk/Beall Productions

As a child, Lina Soualem’s mother took her to spend her summers with her family in Deir Hanna, to swim in Lake Tiberias, “as if to bathe me in her story.” These waters, near the borders of Syria, Israel, Palestine, Lebanon and Jordan, and also known as the Sea of Galilee, are at the heart of Soualem’s second documentary Bye Bye Tiberias. Winner of the Grierson Award for Best Documentary at the 2023 London Film Festival, it recollects the stories of four generations of women in her family. 

Her mother, celebrated actor Hiam Abbass (widely known in the West for her role as Marcia Roy in Succession), is central to her quest – having left her family home in Deir Hanna at the age of 23 to pursue her dream of acting. Soualem leans into personal archives of her childhood, tenderly piecing together family stories. Her mother and aunts bubble with warmth and laughter as they too recollect, even playfully acting out decisive moments in their lives. 

Together they recall their elders, including mother Um Ali and grandmother Nemat – both formidable, strong women whose lives were shaped by the 1948 Palestine war, which displaced them from Tiberias. Soualem also spent years searching for images of women in the elusive archives of this time, eventually sourcing a few black-and-white images of women leaving their homes with their babies in buggies and a few belongings packed into cloth parcels – images made all the more striking for being folded into a story of lineage, of generations of Palestinian women. 

Soualem reflects on what has been lost, what is being lost. But in making the film, she has also created a decisive, visceral and delicate piece of resistance to erasure.

I’d love to hear more about the creative process of the film. Collaboration feels an intrinsic part of the shared history that the film excavates – both a deeply personal and specific story, and one that also echoes a wider reality of Palestinian legacy and diaspora.

The making of Bye Bye Tiberias began in 2018 and ended in 2023. The writing, shooting and editing were not linear in the sense that I would write, film, start editing, and then go back to filming and rewriting. It also took time to collect the film’s images: images from today, family archives from the 90s, and historical archives from the 40s.

I worked closely with my co-writer Nadine Naous, in collaboration with my editor Gladys Joujou and supported by the Palestinian writer Karim Kattan, in order to bring a sense of poetry and lyricism to the stories of the women in my family – while always keeping in mind the fact that they are part of a bigger story, and that others might have felt like them and gone through the same experiences.

Nadine Naous is Palestinian, Lebanese and French, and Gladys Joujou is Lebanese and French. They both left their families and their countries when they were young to achieve something they wanted somewhere else, so they both emigrated to France, and one became a writer and director, and the other became an editor. They have something in common with my mum. They are also closer to her age, so I think they know what this journey means. 

I was born in France, so I don’t know what it means to leave your family and your traditional culture to live your dream. I don’t know what it means to choose exile while also trying to keep a link to your family. I don’t know what it means to raise children far from your own mother. But they’ve all lived through that. Working with them allowed me to understand something about my mother’s path that I had difficulty seeing.

I think it was important for me to have other people writing with me to bring a distance and to allow me to also trust the process. At first it was hard for me to be present in the film with my voice; I didn’t think I wanted to have a voice. I didn’t want to be too exposed.

Your feeling and embracing of exposure is mirrored in a way by your mother’s – a celebrated actor here stepping into a less familiar role.

I give my mother the role of the family guide. She is central to this story. I ask her to act, this time her own role. I place her at the centre of the stage. She opens up revolving doors and stirs up intimate memories from the past. She pulls out the multiple threads in the journeys of the women in the family that have left a mark on her, while highlighting the fundamental links between the personal and the collective memory.

Her story interests me because she never did things totally against the traditions and her parents. She tried to combine her desire to live life as the woman she wanted to be with the fact that she deeply respected and loved her parents. It was important to me to show that complexity in the film, as I sometimes feel that the trajectories of Arab women in films have been told in a binary way – as if it’s either the one totally controlled by the traditions or the one disrupting everything. It’s crucial for me to try to give back complexity to those who are often deprived of it in terms of representation in cinema.

Filmmaker Lina Soualem and her mother, actor Hiam AbbassNorman Wong

And you do so in such an intimate way thanks to a wealth of family archives – largely filmed by your father, Zinedine Soualem, whose family is Algerian (and the subject of your first film). Often, you were the subject of these family videos. How did those family archives live with you over the years, and what did you glean or see anew in working with them as a filmmaker?

When I was a child, my father always had a camcorder with which he and my mother compulsively filmed just about everything that happened when we visited my Algerian paternal family in the Auvergne or my Palestinian maternal family in Galilee. For years, I grew up with these ghosts of images, which came back like reminiscences. Family archives are often there, without spectators, without notice, patient. A large number of visual and family archives lie dormant for decades, never to be seen again. 

It was my encounter with these rediscovered images that made me want to make films. Coming across these VHS tapes from the 1990s was like meeting a character: they opened the door to another world, a forgotten world of images. In these images, we travel through many spaces, lands millennia-old, frozen lands, some of which are now inaccessible or have disappeared. 

Charged with emotions, these personal archives come like reminiscences of the past, almost like flashbacks. They provide a solid base to dig and explore the journeys of the women characters we encounter and the places they visit. In the film, I wanted to extract the essence of these images, to resurrect them through my subjective point-of-view of director, daughter and granddaughter, since I am also a character in those archives, as a kid, aged 1 to 6 years old.

Bye Bye Tiberias (2023)

I was very struck by some of the phrases you use to describe your relationship to Arabic as a conduit of culture but also of understanding. “Ma mère m’a transmis sa langue à moitié. Elle m’a transmis un bout de langue.” [My mother passed on to me half her language. A fragment of her mother tongue.] In the in-between space you occupy – being attuned to some frequencies and only conscious but not fluent in others – the film attempts to piece together fragments: the histories you didn’t grow up understanding or knowing, the missing pieces of your family puzzle, the pieces missing from the dominant narrative of Palestine.

As a descendant of immigrants, I wanted to undertake the urgent yet daunting task of addressing the questions of colonial trauma, exile and transmission through creative writing, building imaginary territories and unpicking and documenting the indelible suffering of uprooted individuals. Transmission is an essential matter for families coming from diasporic backgrounds because it’s more likely that the generation gap between the parents and children leads to a cultural gap, especially when some members of the family are born far from the customs and cultural traditions of their parents’ or grandparents’ home country. 

Reconnecting with your family history is not always a natural process. You face obstacles depending on how much you know the native language or how much the family is attached to traditional values. Exile has an emotional and cultural impact because the bonds with your native home are broken, you’re uprooted, and you must find new roots. I feel people like me, born in Europe, tend to have difficulties finding our place in the West, because we sense there’s a collective memory that’s not part of our daily life. It feels like something is missing, something in our history that is incomplete, as if we don’t fully know or understand ourselves.

Through Bye Bye Tiberias, I wanted to collect the memories of the women in my family in order to preserve the images of a world that is disappearing and to capture the stories that I carry within me. I wanted to capture them before they vanish into oblivion. I follow the same path as the women in my family – I continue what they had started. It is through storytelling that we break free. With our words, we fight against erasure. That is why I feel a constant urge to share these stories. To capture them before they vanish into oblivion, to preserve the images of a world rapidly disappearing. Images that stand as proof of a denied existence.

Bye Bye Tiberias is in cinemas, including BFI Southbank, from 28 June 2024.