‘Bye Bye Tiberias’ Review: A Heartfelt Exploration of Grief in Exile

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Bye Bye Tiberius (2023) © Beall Productions
Bye Bye Tiberius (2023) © Beall Productions

Tracking the exile of her family from Tiberias, Palestine in 1948, Lina Soualem’s moving documentary blends archival footage with images from the modern day to create a film that will last long in your memory.

★★★★★

Bye Bye Tiberias begins with footage dated from 1992 of a young woman and her daughter swimming in a serene lake. A voiceover tells us, “My mother took me swimming in this lake, as if to bathe me in her story.”

Immediately we are introduced to director Lina Soualem, her mother, and their familial ties to this land depicted on screen. Soualem’s story finds its roots in 1948, known to Palestinians as the ‘Nakba’—the Arabic word for ‘catastrophe’ used to describe the mass expulsion and dispossession of Palestinians to make way for the creation of Israel. It was in 1948 that Soualem’s great grandmother, Um Ali, and her family were forced to leave their homes in the village of Tiberias.

Soualem weaves the painful history of Palestine into her own family’s history, merging the personal with the historical until the two are practically indistinguishable. Home videos are played side by side with archival footage of the communities that lived in Palestine in the 1940s, establishing a connection that is crucial to understanding the grief carried by families like theirs. 1948 isn’t just the start of the Nakba, but also the event that triggered her great grandfather’s eventual death. Soualem’s mother, Succession actress Hiam Abbass, recounts how her grandfather Hosni, a farmer displaced by the Nakba, attempted to return to Tiberias only to become inconsolable at the realisation of the life he had lost. He would spend his remaining days at the side of the road, wailing to passers-by: “Have you seen my cows? Have you seen my donkeys?” A sombre Abbass recounts, “Hosni lost his mind and died of grief.” It is a kind of grief that is undoubtedly shared by every Palestinian family that lost their homes and ways of life in 1948.

Grief in exile is the theme that ties each part of this documentary together. Whether it’s grief over the loss of land or the loss of people, there is an air of melancholy that seeps through every single frame. Images of a lively and bustling Deir Hanna from 1940 are contrasted with images of the same village in the modern day, now deserted and vacant of almost all signs of life. As Soualem’s grandmother Nemat recounts how her old home and the mosque nearby were demolished, her sorrow for the community they lost is palpable. It’s impossible to avoid drawing parallels between the images on screen and those coming out of Palestine today. Footage of families carrying their belongings on their backs and searching amongst the rubble of destroyed buildings feel all too familiar to an audience who have spent the better part of a year witnessing similar events unfold in Gaza and the West Bank. As Soualem insists, “Images of the past overlap those of the present.” It is clear that a secondary aim of this documentary is to emphasise how long Palestine has been under siege, to assert that this isn’t a recent issue.

Bye Bye Tiberius (2023) © Beall Productions

Soualem is sparing with her mentions of the Israeli state. While the presence of the occupation is inescapable—shown through the constant planes flying overhead and the slew of IDF soldiers who roam freely with rifles strapped to their waists—this is very firmly a film about Palestine, and Soualem makes sure that her audience knows that. Paired with the heartbreak over a land lost is an unwavering love for what remains; the breathtaking scenery of Palestine is captured with the utmost care and attention, and Abbass is often shot against a backdrop of mountains or open water. Though Soualem may have been born far from Palestine, she clearly bears deep love for the land of her people.

It feels devastating, then, to see that the Tiberias of today is a soulless husk of what it once was. The lakeside that once saw families like Soualem’s teach their children how to swim now appears to be nothing more than a gaudy tourist spot with flashing lights and overbearing music. Abbass stands defiantly at the pier overlooking the Lake as soldiers walk by behind her. There is a lock to her jaw and a curl to her lips. Earlier in the documentary, Abbass describes the act of her being able to enter Syria, albeit from Paris, as a victory because “it shattered the border that Israel imposed on Palestinians”. It feels gratifying to watch a woman stand firm in her resilience in the face of occupation, and indeed this whole documentary feels like a victory—a victory of recounting history, of correcting miss-tellings, of capturing Soualem’s family in the land of their people.

Bye Bye Tiberius (2023) © Beall Productions

Bye Bye Tiberias is a memory of Palestine, captured to document a history that is very quickly being erased. The film opens with Abbass pointing out the borders between Syria and Lebanon, Palestine and Jordan, as if to do the cartographical work on her own terms, to challenge the idea that Palestine is far removed from the rest of the world. Um Ali captures the sentiment and fears of an entire people when she proclaims, “You’ll bury my body with my history, my prayers, and my memories.” The history is no longer buried but captured in this film where Soualem promises to treasure her family’s story. In making this documentary, Soualem’s statement is clear—while the land of Palestine may not always remain untouched, memories like the ones shared by her family will act as a testament to what once was.

The Verdict

Describing the story of her family as “a story of vanished places and scattered memories”, Lina Soualem has pieced together memories to create an intricately woven image of her Palestinian family. Through a mixture of history and memory, Bye Bye Tiberias explores grief and identity to create what feels like both a historical document and a eulogy to a land just out of reach.

Words by Nadira Begum

Bye Bye Tiberias is in cinemas now.


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