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In the Moving Bye Bye Tiberias, Hiam Abbass Considers the Cost of War

In the documentary Bye Bye Tiberias, Palestinian-born actress Hiam Abbass (whose knowing gaze has put people in their place in Paradise Now, Blade Runner 2049, Ramy, Succession, and dozens more projects over her decades-long career) can’t stand to look into her daughter Lina Soualem’s camera for too long. Some of that reticence is inherited, molded by generations of uncertainty and heartache; Bye Bye Tiberias tells a story about Palestinian displacement and diaspora through anecdotes from the women in Abbass’s family, who’ve held tightly to the secrets of what they struggled with and lived through after the 1948 Nakba, when Israel displaced more than 700,000 Palestinians from their homes. It’s rare that these women have been asked directly about their memories, relationships, regrets, and joys. Soualem draws out their admissions with gentle prodding and teasing, and contextualizes their stories with personal home videos from the 1980s and 1990s and archival footage, generating the documentary’s poignant and melancholy tone.

Yet it’s not always introspective hesitation that gives Abbass pause. The omnipresent roar of Israeli planes overhead draws Abbass’s irritation more than once as she visits her mother Nemat’s home in Deir Hanna. When Abbass takes Nemat to Tiberias, the village from which her grandmother Um Ali along with her husband and their eight children were expelled when Israel was created, they can’t track down the places Um Ali remembers. Her family home was demolished long ago, and the dawning realization of how unrecognizable Tiberias is now — with its neon storefronts, a boardwalk blasting dance music, and groups of IDF trainees walking around — plays out on Abbass’s face. The documentary may be understated, with its long dialogue-free stretches. But the distractions that pull Abbass’s stare away from her daughter’s lens give Bye Bye Tiberias a pointedly political backbone that the documentary buoys with clever editing and a tangible self-assuredness.

Four years ago, Soualem dove into her father Zinedine Soualem’s family with Leur Algérie. The documentary focused on her Algerian grandparents’ experiences moving to France in the early 1950s, around the same time as the Algerian Revolution, and their separation after more than 60 years together; love as a way to endure tumult and exile was a central theme. It’s now Abbass’s turn, and there are broad similarities between Leur Algérie and Bye Bye Tiberias in how they consider the connections, both helpful and harmful, between immigration and identity. But Tiberias also rests on Abbass’s inimitable screen presence, and how open she makes herself to this process: letting Soualem film her as she weeps over a close relative’s death, answering her daughter’s sometimes-obtrusive questions about her romantic history (“Your mom was a Don Juan … a different guy every day,” three of Abbass’s sisters tease), and sharing stacks of family photographs and journals of her teenage poetry.

Bye Bye Tiberias makes good use of how easily Abbass can slip into performer mode by using her talent as an actress to interrogate her former selves, including two standout scenes where she enlists her sisters and a former colleague at the Palestinian National Theatre to act out monumental events in her life. Abbass laughs as she directs them, but little moments of brusque honesty, even discontent, slip through, like when her sister Diana says, “You went to Hollywood alone. You could have taken me with you,” or when the same sisters who razzed her for her dating choices remind Abbass that her rebellions against their father’s rules meant that “We all paid for your misdeeds.” This is the picking-at-a-scab, poking-at-a-bruise language of a family who were expected to stick together after the history-wiping impact of banishment and war, and while Abbass takes the family’s teasing in stride, Soualem captures the wistfulness of being the one who left, too.

Hiam is centered here, but Soualem also places her grandmother Nemat, grand-aunt Hosnieh, and great-grandmother Um Ali within the larger Palestinian community via stark, emotionally laden sequences. Abbass’s evocative poems, delivered in melodic Arabic, about traveling to unexpected lands are paired with the awestruck way the actress talks about exploring the Arab world in her 40s, when she could finally travel on a French passport. (Palestinians are considered stateless under international law.) Home videos of family weddings that show the boisterous, patriotic pride of Palestinians dancing and singing in Deir Hanna are contrasted with footage of Israeli soldiers rolling through streets in tanks, taking panopticon positions in upper-level windows, patrolling sidewalks, and stopping cars. Bye Bye Tiberias doesn’t invite outside voices to speak about how widespread the Abbass family experienced is, nor does it load itself down with discussions of Israeli-versus-Palestinian geography or details about conflicts over the decades. It provides just enough detail to communicate a sense of mourning; one long archival swivel pan that shows the streets of an abandoned village, with walls that were once marked in Arabic now papered with posters in Hebrew, gets the point across.

It just so happens that Bye Bye Tiberias, with its images of Palestinians in all manner of traditional and Western dress shopping at a bazaar in 1940 and then, barely a decade later, digging through homes reduced to rubble and carrying all their belongings to places they don’t yet know, is particularly felicitous right now. But it would be a mistake to think that the other story this documentary is telling — about feeling suffocated by borders, history, and tradition, and yearning for kinship, opportunity, and freedom from other people’s judgments — is somehow separate from that. They exist together, like the present, past, and future; time and opportunities for connection and understanding, Bye Bye Tiberias warns us, are slipping away.

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