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Bye Bye Tiberias – BFI London Film Festival Review

Bye Bye Tiberias – BFI London Film Festival Review

Though she has been a mainstay of TV and film for more than twenty-five years, for most western audiences, Hiam Abbass is probably best known as Marcia, Logan Roy’s enigmatic third wife, on HBO juggernaut, Succession. She may be just a small part of that prestigious ensemble, but in Bye Bye Tiberias – directed by her daughter, Lina Soualem – she takes centre stage. 

The deeply personal documentary is centred around the journey that led Abbass to leave her family in Palestine to try and achieve her acting goals in the west. Soualem focuses not just on her mother, but her mother’s mother, and her mother too; a string of brave, determined women who’ve had to do incredibly difficult things to support themselves and their families. 

As Palestinians, the lives of Abbass’s family were irreparably changed during the forced exile of 1948, and the shadow of that trauma looms heavily over their story. Soualem comments often on her own position in this familial chain, as the first in this matriarchal line to be born outside of Palestine, who nevertheless feels a strong tie to the family that still live there. This ‘within and without’-ness, Soualem’s innate connection to the women that came before her and her inability to fully comprehend all they’ve been through, is the heart and the heartache of Bye Bye Tiberias. 

Abbass was twenty-three when she left Palestine, and had thought she’d severed contact for good. But then her daughter was born. Knowing she wanted her family to know her little girl, Abbass took her back to see them when she was still young; home movies from that trip are scattered throughout the documentary. Abbass explains that nothing was said about her desertion during this trip, everyone just carried on as though it hadn’t happened; learning that lends these images, which had beforehand just seemed like the pleasant everyday goings on of any family, an incredible weight. The love that little Lina’s grandparents and aunts so clearly have for her, this tiny creature they may never have met, is beautiful. And then again, we’re back with big Lina, watching a self she can’t remember be an unwitting reconciler. It must have been a strange feeling for the director. 

Bye Bye Tiberias is about a lot of things – the weight of ambition versus the weight of family; the lingering trauma of exile; guilt and love and regret – but above all it’s about the importance of bearing witness, and of recording. Perhaps the single most moving part of this very moving documentary is when, on a video call with Abbass, her ailing mother implores her to visit, “Let’s make the most of each other”. Soon after, she is dead.

When someone is gone, so are their thoughts, their experiences, their idiosyncrasies. They can no longer be asked about their lives, their histories, anything.  As such, Soualem’s quest to understand where she came from, what those who preceded her have faced, is imbued with a real urgency. Though this is a personal film about a particular set of experiences in a specific cultural and historical context, that exhortation to talk with the older members of your family about their lives – to make the most of each other, while you still can – is truly universal.


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