Bye Bye Tiberias Image

Bye Bye Tiberias

By Michael Talbot-Haynes | September 12, 2023

TORONTO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL 2023 REVIEW! In the intricate documentary Bye Bye Tiberias, director Lina Soualem chronicles the female lineage of four generations that she and her mother, famous Palestinian actress Hiam Abbass, are part of. She starts with early 1990s vacation videos of Galilee to Lake Tiberius, recognized as the body of water Jesus walked on. It is where her great-grandmother, Um Ali Tabari, once lived before fleeing during the war in 1948.

After being split apart in Lebanon, Jordan, and Syria, the family came back together in the Palestinian village of Deir Hanna. From here, Abbass fled to Paris to pursue acting, saying she felt suffocated. So Soualem grew up speaking French and only knew a little Arab from her mother. Her only awareness of this side of her family was from visiting Die Hemme to see her grandmother, Nemat Tabari Abbas. Using old photos, journals, and archival footage of pre-war Tiberius, the filmmaker sheds light on what the past for the women in her family looked like. Featuring interviews as well as amusing reenactments with her mother and sisters, Soualem gives form to the ties that still bind these women together despite all the separations.

“…sheds light on what the past for the women in her family looked like.”

I came into Bye Bye Tiberias utterly oblivious to its subject matter. In the pop culture sector where I hang my hat Tiberias is the middle name of Captain Kirk. I also have only come in on the tail end of Abbass’ long acting career with her work in Blade Runner 2049 and the Hellraiser reboot. Lucky for me, the director builds everything from the ground up as she has to piece the story together from her perspective as a tot. As a toddler, she liked the lake, as well as bubble gum. Only as an adult can she see how she brought together her estranged mother and grandmother as a child. The pivotal moments of her mother’s journey back to what she left are captured with remarkable clarity. The way the layers unfold keeps the audience on track and preserves the structure of the historical document being crafted.

The only thing I came away wanting was more insight into Soualem herself. The filmmaker is unusually adept at not soaking the production with her personality. However, it is hard to gauge the emotional impact when it is done with so much objectivity. While the women in her family have full portraits, the director only allows the viewer to interact with her personally as a small child. The rest of the time, she is wearing her filmmaker hat, and I am not sure that was the best approach. As it is, we have access to all the discoveries she has made about her family but none of her personal reactions or how her history fits in. Not to encourage self-indulgence, but Soualem also needed some skin in this game.

In the end, this is a deeply emotional film, one that I have to applaud Abbass for having the guts to do. Allowing moments like what she went through to be shown to everyone and anyone shows a bravery mirrored by the women who came before her. I just wish more light was shed on the woman who came after. Bye Bye Tiberias is a powerful portrait of how broken things come back together over and over.

Bye Bye Tiberias screened at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival.

Bye Bye Tiberias (2023)

Directed: Lina Soualem

Written: Lina Soualem, Nadine Naous, Gladys Joujou

Starring: Hiam Abbass, Lina Soualem, Um Ali Tabari, Nemat Tabari Abbas, etc.

Movie score: 7.5/10

Bye Bye Tiberias Image

"…a powerful portrait of how broken things come back together over and over."

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  1. Allan says:

    I saw this film at TIFF 2023. What a treasure trove of old family film clips she had with summer visits with her extended family at the home village Deir Hanna in the Galilee. For a geo-political context, this is a town in Israel of Palestinian-Israeli citizens.

    I went to this film for a taste of this Palestinian film-maker views as the daughter of an Palestinian Israeli’s context to her large Palestinian Israeli family frequently visited and with celebratory film records. The daughter film-maker showed us those visits and what she knows and feels.

    She interposed the family visits with commentary of events. As a documentary showing what was, the film lacks fact-checking. For example, her grandmother’s sister illegally crossed from Syria, where she lived in a large refugee camp, to Israel to visit Deir Hanna (now a town of 10,000) and also her own mother’s visit as a French citizen to her aunt in the Syrian camp. The commentary was that it is terrible that Israel didn’t allow visits between people. But what didn’t allow open visits was the perpetuation of the state of war between Syria and Israel since 1948. Syria doesn’t allow entry of people with Israeli papers, even flying in from a third country. To resolve and conclude a state of war needs two parties.

    Regarding film clips that were inserted, It seems unlikely that Tiberius in 1948 had high-rise buildings on both sides of a street as shown in the film. Tiberius was a majority Jewish town before 1948 with a Palestinian minority, living in the old centre. Today it has about 40,000 people after lots of growth since then. The old Arab centre would not have warranted such tall buildings but I can’t find a picture to verify that. It is on record that the mandatory British forces evacuated the Arab population in 1948 after Jewish forces took the town. Is it possible that the footage with buildings of 6 or so stories was from somewhere else, like a larger city?

    When the film-maker refers to her mother leaving Israel to go to France to pursue her goal of theatre, her grandmother is quoted as wishing her to study to become a doctor or a lawyer, not an actress, a common goal of Palestinian Israelis. It seems that this is the only mention in this film of the success of a segment of the Palestinian Israeli minority within overall Israeli society.

    The extent of the diversity of medical professionals in Israel became up front news during the pandemic, when the public there realized for the first time that Israeli infectious disease, public health, and epidemiology specialists included a large contingent of Palestinian Israeli professionals. Presumably this is a result of generations of Palestinian Israeli mothers pushing their kids study hard and succeed in the professions, as a minority in a society with opportunity for those who worked hard. That is not the intention of this film to show this part of Palestinian Israeli life that differs from Palestinian life overall. Perhaps the film maker could have been more open to explain that the context of er family is somewhat different from the plight of all Palestinians for having been located in Israel.

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