The intimate work takes the mother and daughter back to the Arab village, situated within Israeli borders in the Lower Galilee, which Abbass left behind in the early 1980s to pursue her acting dreams in Europe.
There, they explore the lives and legacies of four generations of women, all marked in different ways by the consequences of the first generation being expelled from the long-time family home city of Tiberius in 1948, on the eve of the creation of Israel.
Abbass’s near-100 credits have included Tunisian drama Red Satin, Moroccan hit Rock The Casbah, Israeli productions The Syrian Bride and Lemon Tree; Syria civil war-set Insyriated, Palestinian dramas Degradé and Gaza Mon Amour as well as parts in Steven Spielberg’s Munich and Jim Jarmusch’s The Limits Of Control.
Her international renown has expanded beyond film in recent years thanks to her role opposite Brian Cox in Succession, as Logan Roy’s third and final wife Marcia Roy, as well as her appearance as the mother in Hulu hit Ramy.
Bye Bye Tiberius is the second feature-length documentary by Soualem, who previously distinguished herself with the award-winning debut Their Algeria, exploring the impact of France’s colonization of Algeria on its population though the lives of her French-Algerian grandparents on her father’s side.
Bye Bye Tiberius makes its North American premiere at Toronto, having world premiered at Venice parallel section Giornate degli Autori.
Deadline talked to Abbass and Soualem in Venice.
DEADLINE: It’s a very intimate film. Why did you decide to lay bare your personal stories in this way?
LINA SOUALEM: It’s a continuation of what I started doing with Their Algeria. I didn’t think of the film as an intimate film at first. Initially, I wanted to talk about the journeys of the women in my family, but while doing that I understood that I couldn’t do that without including my relationship with them and my mother’s journey as the connection between all four generations.
The most important thing was to be able to give them back their memory and allow them to exist in their complexity, which is not always something we see. Arab characters, especially women, are often portrayed in a very binary way, either as very rebellious, or very conservative. I wanted to show these women are a mix of everything.
DEADLINE: Hiam, why did you decide to come on board this project?
HIAM ABBASS: I was already talking to a producer who wanted to do a movie. Lina had just finished her documentary about her other grandparents, and I saw what she was capable of, and said, ‘Why don’t we propose it to Lina?’
I thought it would be kind of a logical continuation of her first film, dealing with the idea of loss and using individual stories to create a collective memory of a people. I didn’t know I would be in it. At first, I resisted. I would have preferred to play a part rather than be myself.
But then, in this movie, I almost don’t see myself as Hiam. I see myself as a woman with a journey that belongs to a group of women… This is a way to make Palestine eternal in a way. There is so much denial of a lot of things, and even the stories of these woman that I grew up with, who are almost the milk that I drank.
Bye Bye Tiberius
DEADLINE: When you look back at the old home videos and photos of Lina visiting the family home as a small child, and then look at your relationship with that place today, do you ever regret that you built a life elsewhere?
ABBASS: My point of departure in life is always no regrets. No regrets whatsoever. We make choices, we assume them. I think one of the riches of Lina today is her multicultural situation. She was born as Algerian from her father, Palestinian for her mother and French from the society she’s in.
DEADLINE: On that basis, why is there this longing, or nostalgia for Palestine?
ABBASS: I don’t think, it’s about nostalgia…
SOUALEM: The countries of my maternal and paternal backgrounds are countries marked by erasure. There’s a still a lot of denial. It’s like part of your identity is denied so it’s harder to find your place, to exist. There are a lot of different layers. This is what makes it vital and essential. I couldn’t see myself advancing in life without tackling that.
DEADLINE: The film is also a very political film, was that intentional?
SOUALEM: Even if it’s not intentional, we cannot avoid it in the sense that every Palestinian existence is political. It’s not something that I was looking for. But I couldn’t erase this from the story because the lives of all these women are linked to the political context in which they lived. The ruptures in their lives are linked with a political context. And of course, for me, I don’t see our existence as apolitical. As in my first film, I tried to always have the two layers in mind, the intimate layer and the collective memory-political layer, because our lives have been affected by the political context.
DEADLINE: The home videos and contemporary interviews are intercut with archive footage of pre-1948 Palestine, as well as images of the flight of Palestinians during the 1948 war, where did you find the footage?
SOUALEM: A variety of different sources. British Pathé, French archives and private collections… There are no centralized archives or national policy around gathering this material in one place. If you want to source images showing the 20s, 30s and 40, you have to look hard.
DEADLINE: Lina, there’s a shot when your mother returns to Tiberius and a group of Israeli soldiers stream past her as she looks out at Lake Galilee. Aside from this shot, you do not show many Israelis in the film. Was this deliberate?
SOUALEM: I film my family. I don’t film other characters. It’s exactly the same in Their Algeria. There was never a thought of trying to film other things. If other people are in the frame, they just happened to be there at the time.
DEADLINE: That scene is very powerful. Hiam, you don’t say anything but your expression speaks volumes. What were you thinking?
ABBASS: That this is where I come from because this is what I inherited as an idea of where I come from. I didn’t even know how it was. I had only heard stories about it. So, you’re there, and you just think: ‘This could have been a place I would come visit my grandma’. But it’s so different now. I have an image in my head of what Palestine could have been if it had been allowed to evolve.
DEADLINE: Lina, was your grandmother behind the project?
SOUALEM: She was always eager to tell her story and made the effort of go back in time, even it was very hard for her because it would remind her of difficult memories. When we took her to Tiberius, she really wanted to go, but at the same time, she started to cry as soon as we started seeing the lake from afar.
DEADLINE: Hiam, do you think people who know you mainly for Succession, rather than your film career, will be surprised to learn about your personal backstory?
ABBASS: I don’t know. It’s a movie that was necessary for Lina to make and for me to be part of. I didn’t make it to tell the world, ‘This is the background of Hiam Abbass.’ It’s not about me, it’s about women who really stood up in difficult situations and proved themselves. Their survival is a journey of its own.
SOUALEM: What I admire about my great grandmother and my grandmother is that despite everything that they went through, they never had rancor, or rage. They’re always about forgiveness about love. This is very something that I admire a lot.