Stories They Tell:
An Interview with Lina Soualem (Bye Bye Tiberias)
By Marya E. Gates
In her intimate and fiercely political new documentary Bye Bye Tiberias, French-Palestinian-Algerian filmmaker and actress Lina Soualem reflects, “My mother chose to leave. I was born of this departure. This fracture. Between two worlds.” In her 2020 feature Their Algeria, Soualem explored the lineage of her father, French-Algerian actor Zinedine Soualem, whose parents had immigrated from Algeria to France decades earlier and were now set to divorce after 62 years of marriage. Now, Soualem delves into the matrilineage of her Palestinian mother, Hiam Abbass, best known in the U.S. for her performances in The Visitor and Succession.
Using archival footage, including VHS tapes of her childhood shot by her father; photographs; poetry; and staged recreations, Soualem traces four generations of women in her family. The film spans lifetimes, from the family’s expulsion from the city of Tiberias in 1948, after which some settled in the village of Deir Hanna in occupied Palestine while others were separated living in a refugee camp over the border in Lebanon, to her mother’s choice in the 1980s to leave her family and country to pursue her dream of becoming an actress abroad. Soualem’s careful piecing together of her family’s past is an act of reclaiming an endangered history but also an exercise in speculative fiction, where the love and joy and togetherness of family bonds are more powerful than any destructive world events.
Ahead of the documentary’s theatrical opening in New York City at DCTV’s Firehouse Cinema, I spoke with Soualem about the art of transmitting memory, building a world out of displacement, and the enduring strength and humor of Palestinian women.
Reverse Shot: Can you talk a bit about the process of excavating memories from all these different archives, whether it’s your family archives, Palestinian archives around the world, or even the archive of personal memories?
Lina Soualem: I always had the feeling that the images that I had, since I was a kid, were some kind of a treasure, and that’s something that I see in the film. But it was only when I made the film that I realized why I had this feeling about those images and why I valued them so much. I finally understood it because I realized how much of our story is silenced, how much of our story is dispersed, our memories are scattered. We don’t have a collective communal patrimony; everything is spread out. So, each image becomes a proof of a denied existence, each image becomes a proof of the unity of the family, even though actually it is not real.
We recreate things that we wish we had through the images and what you decide to film becomes the reality. But it’s not really the reality, because you have a point of view when you film. I always had a point of view in my personal history that my dad was trying to keep track of —which is a story that might disappear—to keep traces of people that had many memories that weren’t always transmitted, as if to prove that they were there and alive. I had to complete these personal archives with more historical archives, because even though I always felt that I had this treasure at home, I needed to be able to confront these personal images and make them interact with more collective images. I have always felt that the intimate stories are not only ours, but they were also those of so many other Palestinians, and so many other displaced people, uprooted people.
Yes, it's an intimate story, it's an intimate path, but also there are thousands of incidents, of paths that compose the collective memory. Each intimate memory adds up and enriches the collective memory, especially when you don't have a story that is officially written. In that context, you have to take from your intimate story to be able to create this collective story from the bottom up.
RS: The way you pull these individual stories of strength from your mother, your grandmother, your great-grandmother, reminded me of [the 1984 Lebanese film] Leila and the Wolves. Was that film on your mind when you were collecting stories from your family?
LS: Actually, no, this film wasn’t really on my mind. I think the film that has really impacted me, from my first film to this one, was Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell. It's a really intimate story of a Canadian young girl that becomes universal, and I don’t know how she manages to do that. She uses archives, she recreates archives, she makes her father read a script that she wrote, she stages a lot of incidents. It was really inspiring in a storytelling way. But at the same time, the difference between her film and mine is that in her film she uncovers a family secret, and in my story, there's no secret. What is at stake is giving back humanity to people who are dehumanized, and giving back visibility to stories that are invisible. So, I think this film was maybe harder to construct in that there was no evidence to uncover.
I was investigating something that was hard to grasp. How do you create a portrait of exile? How do you create a portrait of the consequences of displacement, of being uprooted, of this exile? Then how do you create a portrait of the transmission of these memories, or a portrait of the silence? These are difficult, challenging, abstract things that have a concrete effect on lives.
RS: How did you work with your co-writer Nadine Naous and your editor Gladys Joujou to bring all these different perspectives together?
LS: We all worked together from its conception through the editing process. The editor is not only an editor, but also a writer because you write a lot in the editing room. My co-writer was also present when we were working on the film’s voice in the editing room. So the three of us were collaborating together during the whole process. I think it was really important for me to have other people writing with me to bring a distance and to allow me to also trust the process. At first it was really hard for me to be present in the film with my voice, I didn’t think I wanted to have a voice; I didn't want to be too exposed. I was also sometimes a bit lost in what was interesting for the story, because it's my personal story so sometimes I didn’t have enough distance.
I also love that they’re both women from the Arab region. Nadine Naous is Palestinian, Lebanese and French, and Gladys Joujou is Lebanese and French. They both left their families and their countries when they were young to achieve something they wanted somewhere else. So, they both emigrated to France, and one became a writer and director, and the other became an editor. They have something in common with my mom. They are also closer to her age, so I think they know what this journey means. I was born in France, so I don’t know what it means to leave your family and your traditional culture to live your dream. I don’t know what it means to choose exile while also trying to keep a link to your family. I don’t know what it means to raise children far from your own mother. But they’ve all lived through that. Working with them allowed me to understand something about my mother's path that I had difficulty seeing only as her daughter. I was so lucky to have them on board with me and for them to give so much for the film.
RS: You wrote your own narration. Your mother is an actress, so you have her use her acting abilities. There’s also the poetry your family members have written. When did you realize you wanted to include all the different voices of your family?
LS: It was clear from the beginning that I really wanted to have as many ways as possible to tell the story because I felt I inherited from these stories, but also from the poetry. A lot of other generations in my family have been writers. My grandfather wrote poems to my grandmother. My mother wrote for him when she was younger. My grandmother wrote her memoir. There was this tradition of writing that I wanted to use. But there was the tradition of acting that my mother embodied, and the archival footage that my dad always filmed brought the tradition of filming our lives. I had all these sources of images and these different ways of storytelling, but they also jumped from the past to the present, along different timelines. I knew from the beginning that these different elements were not artifacts; they corresponded to the reality of the story because they showed how much of these memories and stories are scattered.
All these ways of telling our stories were scattered because each person in the family had to find a way to transmit through whatever means that they could. When you add them up, it's like recomposing a puzzle. I always felt that the film had to become an imaginary territory in which everyone could belong, because everyone could be in the same place, even when actually they're not. So, the film is a utopia of what we would have loved our story and our reality to be. We would have loved to not suffer displacement and not suffer separation and become scattered.
RS: There’s a tactility to the memories in the film. I’m thinking of the scene where your mother recalls meeting her aunt after 25 years apart, and her aunt says she’s brought the smell of your family, the smell of Palestine with her to Lebanon. Or the way you have your family place photos on the wall. How did you aim to bring that tactility to the filming of these stories?
LS: When you start digging in the past, the only way that you find yourself able to do it, is to grasp concrete elements. So, a photo becomes everything, especially in the context of a family or people for whom the past is synonymous with suffering. My mom would tell me not to open the gates to the sorrows of the past; why dig up the past when this was such a difficult period of her life. It was really hard to do question and answer sessions. The best way to reactivate these memories is to look at photos, look at objects that remind you of a time and place.
This is what I used, because it was the most respectful way of dealing with the past, because I didn’t want my mother to be hurt or to suffer during the process of filmmaking. Even though some memories were painful, I really wanted her to feel the emotions that she wanted to feel. So, when she is looking at the photo of her young self, for example, she could decide what she wanted to say about this photo at the moment that she looked at it. At the same time, automatically, the photo would take her back to a certain time and place. I think the photos become proof of our existence in certain places. Objects become really important in the context of difficult pasts.
RS: I was really struck by the scenes where she reminisces with her sisters about their youth. Even if some of those memories are painful, there’s still so much joy there. How did you get them so comfortable on camera?
LS: It's something that I've always witnessed. Anytime we would go to the village, I really loved being there as a young kid or teenager, sitting in the middle of the living room and seeing all my aunts and my mother making jokes and playfully tackling each other and making fun of each other, but always in a very loving way. We were always laughing a lot together, always feeling a lot of love.
This was sometimes in contradiction with the reality around us. Sometimes we would go to Deir Hanna and there was a war going on or we would reminisce about something bad that had happened to the family. But at the same time, they would always find ways to make us laugh and make us feel loved and protected. I always admire them for that. So, filming them was really easy. I thought they would be shy and it would be complicated to film them, so I brought a woman director of photography, so that they would feel comfortable. I wanted them to feel safe to tell their intimate stories without feeling judged by the presence of a man that they didn't know. And they were very natural. All I had to do was place the camera in front of them and they started laughing and making jokes, as they do, while also saying very impactful things.
Sometimes they would talk about something that could have been hurtful at the time, but they transform it. And I think this is very representative of the Palestinian humor. I think it's a mechanism of survival. Laughter becomes a way to keep going despite all the tragedies that you go through, because you have to find a way to turn that reality into something else.