Lina Soualem on Bye Bye Tiberias, deracination and displacement

Lina Soualem on Bye Bye Tiberias, deracination and displacement

As Lina Soualem’s new documentary Bye Bye Tiberias arrives in the US for a brief theatrical run, Farah Sadek hears more from the filmmaker on her Palestinian family history. 

In 2020, Palestinian-Algerian French filmmaker Lina Soualem released Their Algeria, a documentary that chronicled the divorce of her grandparents after 62 years of marriage in the context of their resettlement to France during the war. Three years later, she is back with Bye Bye Tiberias to tell the story of her maternal family. It is a bittersweet story of displacement that centers her real-life mother, Succession and Blade Runner actress Hiam Abbas, and the story of how she left her hometown of Deir Hanna to pursue acting as a 23-year-old. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

You have a greater on-camera presence in Bye Bye Tiberias than in Their Algeria – what changed?

Their Algeria was a film made in a spontaneous act, with a need to capture the story of my Algerian paternal grandparents as they couldn't pass their story on to me. I didn't have a team, so my presence had to be behind the camera, because I was the one asking the questions to my grandparents. I was leading the questions, bringing my grandparents to certain places and showing them photos to refresh their memories.

In Bye Bye Tiberias, I had to take more space because I'm telling the story of four generations of Palestinian women, and I'm the fourth generation. I'm the one deciding to go back to the source, passing by my mother, my grandmother, my great grandmother. It's been difficult for me to accept the fact that I was going to have a greater presence, because it's not easy to expose yourself. It's a story filled with a lot of collective pain and because I was telling the story of the intimate paths of the women of my family, I couldn't be absent. I had to take my place in the story. The film is about how these women found their place in the world in the context of displacement and exile. So it's also my story, in the way that I'm looking for my place in the family in the line of transmission, as well as between the different countries that I'm from.

Early on, you quote your mum telling you, “Don't open the gate to past sorrows.” The feeling of gatekeeping and protection is very evident, and by the end of the movie, the gate is still ajar. In that context, how did you start making the documentary?

It was hard, at first, for my mother to go back to certain moments of her life, because since she has built her own path, she doesn't look back. I was asking her to come back to things that could have been painful. While she would tell me not to open the gates to the sorrows of the past, she would also ask these questions to her own mother and grandmother. I think all daughters are trying to access the girl that their mother was. I wanted to understand the women of my family, not only as maternal figures but also as women.

My mother really wanted to transmit this to me, but it wasn't easy. It took time for us to find the right balance. I needed time to understand what I wanted to do with this film and she needed time to understand and trust my process. But, since the beginning, she never said no. It was hard for her, but she never pushed me away.

Bye Bye Tiberias made me think about the power of documentation, and how, despite our personal feelings, we have to document personal moments because when you’re fighting against erasure, the act of documentation becomes resistance in itself. How do you navigate being entitled to personal moments but having to capture them, not only as a filmmaker but as a member of the family?

I inherited all the footage that my father filmed in the ‘90s, when he was capturing all these daily life moments where the women would contribute to the world around them. These little moments meant a lot, in a context in which we don't have much footage of our history – because our memory has been erased, our images have been lost or destroyed due to the political context and the displacement. Each new image becomes proof of [our] denied existence. It takes on value that is beyond an archive or just a happy souvenir for the family. It becomes an archive that can be added to the collective archive. The museums that have been collecting archives of Palestine throughout the years, they usually collect personal photos and videos. These become the National Archives, because we don't have a National Archive.

That’s a different outlook than what your grandfather said in Their Algeria about how they don’t like to keep pictures because they hold painful memories. 

That is also a common [sentiment]. In Their Algeria, I was really impacted to discover how few photos they had. The only photos we had, we cherished when we were at home, even without really knowing much about the people in those photos. My Algerian grandmother only had one photo of her father, and when the colonization happened and they had to flee, that photo was lost.

There’s a Chilean documentary filmmaker whom I really love, Patricio Guzman, who said, “A country without a National Archive is like a family without a photo album.” A family without a photo album is also a family that has a hard time transmitting their history and constructing it. I also think that's why my Algerian father was conserving so many photos and was filming so much footage of my Palestinian maternal family. It’s as if, unconsciously, he wanted to keep traces of everything because he didn't inherit enough history and traces of his own story.

There is a lot of guilt in leaving your home to pursue something that doesn’t serve the inner community or give them instant gratification. Being an artist in those conditions is both a blessing and a curse. Your mum says that her mum wanted her to be a doctor or a lawyer, but your film was very kind to both of their perspectives.

It wasn't easy for my mum to follow this path, because she came from a small village and a traditional family that wanted their daughters to have a good education and a good job, and then, to marry, and being an actress is not considered a proper job. My grandmother was very proud of my mother, but at first, she didn't understand. It's not a job that is understood by families in general – they don't really understand what it means to be on a film or TV set and what it means to sacrifice your daily life for a project.

When my mother was working a lot, my family was always asking me if she was still taking good care of me. They were afraid that we as children would be neglected, but my mother always managed to include us in her work life. It allowed me to discover so much, to have access to the world of cinema, to travel a lot, especially in the Arab world where she did a lot of films. For me, it was a blessing.

In Bye Bye Tiberias, your family’s identity is deeply tied to the land, unlike in Their Algeria, where their identity is very intrinsic. They say: “When you're Algerian, you’re Algerian”. How do you portray these two different sentiments?

The difficult thing for the Algerian immigrants who were brought to France is that even when their country gained independence, they stayed in France. They had started working and raising their families, so it was hard for them to leave again, and live through another displacement. Of course, they were very attached to their identity, but the land that they had known, 50 years before, didn't exist anymore. The Algeria they knew was the colonized Algeria, and they didn't know the contemporary Algeria. 

Their identity is tied to culture and memory more than the actual land – while in Palestine, because they've been removed from their land, it's different. You hold on to the thing that you lost and the land is representative of that. My family is a family of farmers, so land was everything for them. In Tiberias, my great-grandfather had his cattle and olive trees, and my great grandmother would go to the fields and pick produce to cook with. Their relationship to the land was a daily part of their lives.

How do you feel promoting Bye Bye Tiberias amidst what’s happening in Palestine right now?

It's been very hard, especially for my mother who was reliving traumas of war. At the same time, I'm always grateful to see so much warmth from audiences and to see how much it gives them access to perspectives that they don't get elsewhere, due to stigmatizing coverage of Palestinians. I don’t think we have experienced that level of televised dehumanization before. My mother and I are blessed to have this film tell our story and make our voices heard. What is touching for me is to see that even with people who come from different backgrounds, they connect [with us], they feel and see us. They laugh and cry with these women, they understand their complexities, they accept all their contradictions as human beings.

But, of course, our hearts are heavy with everything that is happening in Gaza. The Gazans are the descendants of the Palestinian refugees from 1948, so they had the same paths as some of my family. It's just a coincidence of history that made some people end up here or there. More than 60% of Gaza’s population are already refugees from other parts of Palestine, so Gaza is not a mass that is disconnected from the rest of Palestinians.

When I was at the BFI in London in October, our film received the Best Documentary award during a very intense week. I was very grateful to receive that prize at that moment. What I said was, “What is tragic for me is that for a lot of people in Gaza, we will never know their stories or their faces, their aspirations, their works of art, but at the same time, our films will always exist to remember us.” It was very hard for me to say that, but it’s what I was feeling, and I'm still feeling today.

You ask your mother how to be the great-granddaughter of the family once the mother left, to which she doesn’t have an answer. In a film that rejects hypotheticals and conclusions, how do you answer that?

It’s a question that cannot have an answer. It’s the question that we, the children of immigrants and displaced people, will always ask ourselves. What if I was born there? What if my family hadn't left? What if my mother had stayed? What if the war didn't happen? What if we were not displaced at a point? What would our life look like? 

This reminds me of an Algerian author, whom I love, Faiza Guene. She writes a lot about this feeling of fantasizing about something you will never experience.

Bye Bye Tiberias is available to watch at the Firehouse Cinema in New York until the 20th of January and is available in LA from the 19th to the 26th of January.

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