director Lina Soualem and her mother, actress Hiam Abbass celebrate Palestinian identity in “Bye bye Tiberias”

Side by side, Hiam Abbass and his daughter Lina Soualem are used to interviews. The actress and the young director have been working on them for several months for their film Bye bye Tiberias, in theaters since February 21. They tell the story of their family marked by the Nakba, the forced exile of Palestinians. Marked by the exceptional journey of Hiam Abbass’s mother and grandmother, the documentary is also a visual book of memories and archive images of Lina Soualem’s maternal family. A film that resonates in the news of the Israel-Hamas conflict.

For Franceinfo Culture, they return to the need to tell Palestinian stories.

Franceinfo Culture: What led you to do Bye bye Tiberias ? Was there a click ?

Lina Soualem : It stems from my first film Their Algeria in which I filmed my Algerian paternal grandparents. I realized how much I had begun to explore something I hadn’t finished. The maternal touch always came back. I often spoke about the silence around the history of my paternal family which was not passed on because of the trauma linked to uprooting, colonization and immigration. I often compared this with my maternal family, for whom the transmission of history was done to survive. I needed to immerse myself in this maternal story that was passed down to me. I had started filming my maternal grandmother when I was filming Their Algeriaas if by acquisition of consciousness or duty to also capture this memory.

It was more painful to tell. These are more tragic stories. At the same time, it became more and more vital and necessary. I realized that the archive footage filmed by my father was a treasure.

Hiam Abbass : When we are born inheriting exiles such as Algeria and Palestine, I believe that if we question one side, we almost become obliged to question the other, because the balance depends on both. It’s not the story of mom and dad, it’s beyond them.

How do you fight against the invisibility of these Palestinian stories that are buried and ignored by the rest of the world?

Lina Soualem : By giving these women back a place in history, a right to exist. In the film, we cannot deny what they experienced. This is what they say about their lives. This is not a bias or a position, it is reality.

Facing stigma. Faced with this idea that Palestinians are an abstract, homogeneous mass, who are constantly essentialized, whereas in this collective history, there are only individual memories of people trying to find their place in the world. This film becomes an archive from the moment when loss and erasure are still in progress. It is an archive that becomes proof of a memory and a denied history.

The crazy thing is that the outside world has tried to erase the Palestinian identity. A people without land for a land without people. There was no society according to the collective imagination. What is impressive and miraculous is that the Palestinians are there. They continue to tell their stories, to live, and to celebrate themselves through culture and everyday gestures. They managed to surpass themselves despite the violence of the loss. I have a friend who is from sub-Saharan Africa. He told me that he had connected the film to his story. As descendants of a family that suffered slavery, with a denied identity, we are there, the little children, affirming our belonging to a culture and a collective memory of former colonized people. He said it was the greatest form of humanity: we survived dehumanization. True resistance is through life.

The Palestinian identity is disintegrating with the conflict. Does a film on the scale of a family remind us of the Palestinians’ roots in their land?

Lina Soualem : It allows us to make something visible that is not looked at, stigmatized or hidden. This is all we know about Palestine, these non-real representations that others project onto us. This does not correspond to our reality, to that of my family but also to that of all the other Palestinian families that I know. These are people who define themselves by life and culture and not by death as they are always represented. It is not a stigmatized mass but a multitude of individuals. What is being denied to Palestinians is their humanity, the possibility of being full human beings with their aspirations. Even though they are dispossessed of everything, Palestinians continue to celebrate life, and this is the case for the women in my family. This is what I have always seen of them, of this land, of this culture. For me, it was important to give them space so that they could reinscribe themselves in history.

It’s not just surviving, it’s continuing to live. Continue to celebrate marriages, to celebrate the values ​​of peace, of tolerance for your children. This family represents the richness of Palestinian culture. There are a lot of Palestinian poets, writers, artists, in a place marked by war, displacement, uprooting. A place that doesn’t even have a Ministry of Culture and yet there are a lot of festivals and cinemas. This is what I know about Palestine and what I wanted to highlight.

Was there a sense of urgency in making this film?

Hiam Abbass : Rather the fear of loss.

Lina Soualem : Also the need to leave a trace so as not to be completely buried and crushed by the perception of others. I started filming about seven years ago. We realize today in the context in which the film is released that this necessity has become an emergency. But we were not aware of the urgency at that time, even if the risk of erasure and disappearance always existed. I talk about it in the film, it’s a fear that lies dormant within us and is waking up today.

In the documentary, we get the impression that communication between mother and daughter was easy, without any particular modesty. Is it an impression or reality?

Lina Soualem : What we see on the screen is very real. We didn’t keep the more difficult times. It took us a while to find our balance. I filmed a lot alone at the beginning. I didn’t know exactly what I was looking for from my mother’s story at first. It was a challenge to find my place as a director and as a woman in front of my mother.

Hiam Abbass : For me, it wasn’t easy to face the camera head-on. Telling your life story is difficult. I’m more used to telling the lives of other characters. What was complicated to understand at first was the place I would occupy in the film. Lina was still trying to figure out what she was going to say. I ended up understanding that I was a piece of a puzzle, perhaps a little bigger than the others because I am the direct link between Lina and other generations of women.

We had difficult moments to relive or recount, but Lina was able to draw joy and pleasure from this process. At the beginning, we were looking for each other’s land. The professionalism of the situation stood out and I really saw her as a filmmaker and a woman who was trying to understand something of our history.

We see that your choices, Hiam, still weigh on your shoulders, that the things left unsaid have not been completely resolved. Did the film have a therapeutic value for you?

Hiam Abbass : Not really. I don’t experience it the same way. Word circulated a lot among us. What remains unsaid lies more on the professional side. I chose a profession that is absolutely not traditional in my culture, and for a woman at that. This film was more of a necessity and a duty towards memory. If I agreed to participate, it is because I myself, at one point, took my share of responsibility to delve into the past which can be painful at times. By overcoming the pain, I wanted to fulfill this duty of memory by letting Lina’s camera speak. Before Lina’s project, I didn’t know what to do with this assignment. I didn’t have the perspective to take my camera and do it myself. I tried several times, especially through writing, but the film came as a response to these desires within me. Who better than my daughter to question my inner self?

In the film, you sell the family home. Was it a difficult moment for you?

Hiam Abbass : For me, this house does not necessarily represent my story. It is a family home in which life existed with my mother and father. From the moment they disappeared, this place no longer had any meaning. All I take away from this place today are just memories. I don’t feel the need to look at the walls, windows and garden to remember the beauty of my childhood and what I received from my parents. I struggle more with the loss of Tiberias and the house of my maternal grandparents than the house where I grew up. It is also the power of choice. On the one hand, choosing to get rid of a place and on the other, not having the choice to leave the place after being chased out.

The house of Tiberias no longer exists today. My family is not in Gaza, they are much better. It’s difficult to understand what is happening in Gaza. The pain and sorrow are incomparable with what my family went through.

Your mother and your grandmother, Hiam, never wanted to leave Palestine. Were they able to explain to you why?

Hiam Abbass : You don’t leave your country. I left him but for different reasons. I wanted to achieve my ambitions, which seemed impossible given the context. In my time, it was impossible to imagine a career as an actress. It was difficult to live a dual identity in Palestine. Palestinian identity was erased. As a child, I no longer knew how to relate. As you grow up, all of this becomes a burden to carry around every day for which you have to justify yourself all the time. I wanted to free myself from all this weight and achieve something else.

For many Palestinians, including my mother and grandmother, it was “we moved once, we won’t move a second time.” We still see it today among the Palestinians, as soon as there is an attack on them, they stay. I know families today in Gaza who stay at home, even if they die from bombs.

“Bye bye Tiberias”, directed by Lina Soualem with Hiam Abbass, in theaters since February 21.

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