Bye Bye Tiberias: tender family archive documentary illuminates the larger history of Palestinian displacement

Director Lina Soualem pieces together her fragmented family history through four generations of Palestinian women, including her mother, the actor Hiam Abbass, in this deeply personal and absorbing documentary.

Bye Bye Tiberias (2023)

As a child, Lina Soualem spent her summers visiting her mother’s family and swimming in the waters of Lake Tiberias. Those waters flow through Soualem’s quietly absorbing documentary Bye Bye Tiberias, from opening scenes in which faded VHS captures the young Lina swimming to present-day images of Lina’s mother, the actor Hiam Abbass (best known for her role as Marcia Roy in Succession), gazing across the shore at the mountains beyond. 

Tiberias, which lies near the borders of Syria, Israel, Palestine, Lebanon and Jordan, is also known as the Sea of Galilee. It has a potent history closely tied to war, colonialism, mythology and faith – it’s where Jesus reputedly walked on water. No wonder the filmmaker is drawn to the lake, especially given its symbolic importance to her family. As Soualem recounts in voiceover, “My mother took me swimming in a lake as if to bathe me in her story.”

In this achingly melancholy film, Soualem invites us all to bathe in that story. Bye Bye Tiberias has a fragmentary feel, as Soualem juxtaposes archive, newsreel and photographs with intimate footage of her mother returning to her childhood home. To fill in the gaps, Abbass reads a text written by Soualem, “a story of vanished places and disappeared memories”, in which she speculates about the lives of her great-grandmother, grandmother, mother and aunt, “women who learned to leave everything and start anew”.

Family archive documentaries are plentiful, but Bye Bye Tiberias is elevated by the unforced way it uses these individual women’s memories to illuminate the larger history of Palestinian displacement. The family’s lives collide with momentous events, such as the 1948 Palestine war, which forces Soualem’s relatives to leave Tiberias and permanently separates Abbass’s mother Um Ali and her sister Hosnieh, divided by the Israeli-Syrian border. Their story is echoed years later, when Abbass leaves to pursue her career in Europe, exiling herself in her pursuit of freedom.

Complex feelings of estrangement and reunion are beautifully evoked throughout. In one anecdote, Abbass recalls meeting Hosnieh in Syria, where she has been living in exile: when the two women meet, they run to one another, “pressing together like two magnets”, as Hosnieh inhales her niece’s scent, revelling in the smell of her lost homeland. It’s not all devastation though – there’s a mischievousness to scenes in which Abbass’s sister laments that she never got to join her in Hollywood, or when the family wonder how Um Ali managed to conceive ten children. Fittingly for such a tender, timely film, these moments remind us of the resilience of the human spirit in the face of great suffering – sparks of joy in the darkest of places.

 Bye Bye Tiberias is in UK cinemas from 28 June.


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