To find her voice as a filmmaker, Paris-based documentarian Lina Soualem had to first look to the past.
The daughter of French actor Zinedine Soualem and Palestinian actress Hiam Abbass — seen recently as the Machiavellian Marcia Roy in HBO’s “Succession” — Soualem used her directorial debut, “Their Algeria,” to tell the story of her paternal grandparents’ decision to separate after more than 60 years of marriage. Now she returns with another intimate family portrait, “Bye Bye Tiberias,” which premieres Sept. 3 at the Venice Film Festival. Lightdox is handling world sales.
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Soualem’s sophomore effort is an emotional journey that sees the filmmaker and her mother return to the family’s ancestral village in Palestine, which Abbass left in her early twenties to pursue her dream of becoming an actress in Europe. In the process, she left behind her mother, grandmother and seven sisters, along with questions that haunt the actress to this day.
Following on the heels of her well-regarded debut, which premiered at Visions du Réel and scooped more than a dozen awards on the festival circuit, “Bye Bye Tiberias” cements Soualem’s status as a documentary filmmaker to watch, even as it marks the culmination of a long, winding journey. “It took me some time to understand why I wanted to do these kinds of films,” she says. Ultimately, however, “I felt like it was the path that I had wanted to take since the beginning.”
Soualem and Abbass spoke to Variety ahead of the Venice premiere of “Bye Bye Tiberias,” which plays next at the Toronto Film Festival. The director admits she was initially skeptical about returning to the family album for her second feature. “Having done the first, I wasn’t sure that I would have the strength or courage to tackle the maternal side of the family,” she says. Abbass, who says she takes pains to separate her on-screen personae from real life, was equally reluctant. “I felt my intimacy invaded — not by Lina in any way, but by the process of opening up my private, interior thoughts and life for examination,” she says.
Set between past and present, piecing together the camerawork of cinematographer Frida Marzouk with family footage and historical archives dating back nearly a century, “Bye Bye Tiberias” portrays four generations of Palestinian women who keep their story and legacy alive through the strength of their bonds, despite exile, dispossession and heartbreak.
Soualem describes the film as a tribute to the bravery and perseverance of women who “managed to take their destiny into their hands,” despite the limited choices available to them in patriarchal Palestinian society and the political upheaval that began with the forced displacement of more than 700,000 Palestinians in 1948, with the creation of the Israeli state.
“For me, it was important to have their personal memory recognized, but also their collective memory,” she says. “In the context of the Palestinian story, there is no collective story that is written, because it’s not recognized as such.”
Growing up in the shadow of her parents — both acclaimed actors in the Arab world — Soualem was initially reluctant to take up the family trade. Though acting enabled her family to travel often when she was a young girl, she came to associate her parents’ screen work with a sense of separation and distance, as the duo spent long hours on set, surrounded by directors and cameramen, wardrobe and make-up artists. She felt intimidated, too, by their success and considered a career in journalism or cultural diplomacy instead. “It took quite a while to find my place in this artistic field,” she says.
Soualem’s younger sister, Mouna, ultimately followed her own path into the movie industry; she had a role in Dominik Moll’s César-winning true-crime drama “The Night of the 12th,” and the sisters both starred in Abbass’ directorial debut, “Inheritance,” in which the duo portrayed — naturally — the on-screen daughters of their real-life mom. Yet just as she took her own fate into her hands as a young woman in the ’90s, Abbass insists her daughters were free to pursue whatever life they chose. “As a mother, I always thought they would do whatever they want to do,” she says, “and I would never push them to do something that suits me but not suit them.”
Choices — and their consequences — run throughout “Bye Bye Tiberias,” as Abbass reflects on her decision to leave Deir Hanna, a small village in Galilee not far from Lake Tiberias. Her success has offered no small measure of validation, even as it has carried her further and further from the places she once knew — many of which have since been wiped off the map. Yet she insists: “Home for me is Palestine, emotionally.”
“Despite all this suffering, despite all this exile, despite all these difficulties, the separations, the loss, I knew from the day that I became aware of life that a lot of love was transmitted” through the women in her family, she says. “And I think this is one of the things that made me stand up and go ahead.”
“I feel that their strength is very present in our story and our family,” adds Soualem. “What we share is a common story of transmission, of strength and resistance, and knowing how, as women, to find our place in the world.”
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