Hiam Abbass, left and Lina Soualem in 'Bye Bye Tiberias'
Hiam Abbass, left and Lina Soualem in 'Bye Bye Tiberias'
Image: Beall Productions / Frida Marzouk

Hiam Abbass is a screen actress and an important cultural figure. With a film and TV career stretching over four decades, she has an impressive range of screen credits to her name.

She was catapulted into a new level of celebrity, however, by her performance as Marcia Roy in the hit series Succession. Her character stands out in the all-American Roy family because of her French accent and a vague backstory that has something to do with being born in Beirut.

This is comparable to Abbass’ own history, though here one must be cautious not to subscribe to a clumsy view of the so-called “Middle East” that considers its people, places and countries as more or less mutually fungible. Indeed, to tell her life story is to tease apart a complex set of threads knotted together in the ambiguous shorthand phrases commonly used to describe her identity: “Israeli-French”, “exiled Palestinian”, “Muslim Arab”.

Abbass hails from the formerly Palestinian village of Deir Hanna, which was incorporated into Israel in 1948 — that is to say, it was captured by the Israelis in one of numerous military conquests that appropriated land designated as part of Arab states in the UN’s post-World War 2 partition. The name of this offensive was Operation Hiam.

Abbass’ grandparents were among the 50,000 Palestinians kicked out of their homes in the region of Upper Galilee (the total number of Palestinians displaced in the 1948 Nakba was more than 750,000). The family was split. One daughter fled to Syria, and was never allowed back across the border; the others, including Hiam’s mother, stayed in Deir Hanna. Young Hiam, born in 1960, found life as a Palestinian-Israeli “suffocating”. As a young woman, she left for France to pursue her acting ambitions.

This is the premise of the documentary feature Bye Bye Tiberias, which is one of a handful of films at the 2024 Encounters festival foregrounding the suffering and resilience of the Palestinian people. There are almost 50 films being screened in this, the 26th iteration of the festival, at various cinemas in Johannesburg and Cape Town.

The film’s title refers to Lake Tiberias, Tabariyya in Arabic, also known as the Sea of Galilee — where, according to the Bible, Jesus walked on the water. To Abbass and her family, too, it is sacred: the site not of the miraculous but of the reassuringly mundane. It is a place of memory, of holidays during peacetime, but also of stolen pasts and lost identities.

The director of Bye Bye Tiberias, Lina Soualem, is Abbass’ daughter. As we look over family photographs with the two of them at the start of the film, it becomes clear that this is going to be a story of mothers and daughters. A story about women who survive and provide, women who, for whatever reason, have to say goodbye to everything they know and start anew. Though it focuses on Abbass and her journey, it also depicts Soualem’s attempt to reclaim a heritage that she was partly denied.

There is an intriguing linguistic dimension to this intergenerational shift; Abbass gently teases Soualem for not being fluent in Arabic, but speaks to her in both Arabic and French. In turn, Soualem’s French prose-poems, read out loud by her mother, are deeply moving.

The film makes use of archive footage from various sources, including home videos shot by Lina’s father (Hiam’s ex-husband) Zinedine Abbass during annual trips to visit the family in Deir Hanna in the 1990s, when Lina was a little girl. “By filming me,” she says, “my father placed me in the story of my family’s women.” Bye Bye Tiberias thus explores Soualem’s vocation as a filmmaker, which seems to have its genesis in her intuitive sense that film can restore what has been lost.

The people and places represented in this documentary are precarious. Abbass’ mother dies during the making of the film. Deir Hanna as an “Arab” town, we are told, “may disappear any day now”. Even Lake Tiberias itself is not reliably tranquil and safe; the lapping waves are drowned out by garish pop music and the shores are constantly patrolled by Israeli soldiers.

• The Encounters Documentary Festival takes place from June 20-30.

This artilce originally appeared in Business Day. 

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