Review by Sean Boelman
Sometimes, documentaries where the filmmaker is telling their own story or that of someone close to them are among the best in the genre — just look at Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell or Kirsten Johsnon’s Dick Johnson is Dead. Lina Soualem aims for the same type of appeal with Bye Bye Tiberias, trying to get emotion out of an intensely personal story, but struggles to solidify why the audience should care.
In Bye Bye Tiberias, the filmmaker follows her mother — French-Arab actress Hiam Abbass (Succession) — as she returns to her childhood home near Lake Tiberias that she left decades ago to pursue her career. While making this film was seemingly a cathartic experience for Soualem, that doesn’t necessarily translate to a rewarding one for the viewer.
As the film’s main subject is the director’s own mother, she clearly has a personal connection to telling this story. However, this intimacy does not necessarily translate into the audience’s experience watching the movie. It never feels like we’re digging deeply into the past, but rather, sitting around listening to the types of stories that are told year after year at family get-togethers. In other words, the film simply isn’t prying enough.
Still, at 83 minutes, the film moves along at a nice enough pace that it feels entirely pleasant. There are some moments in which it begins to feel a bit repetitive, as the subjects look through more and more old photos, or revisit places from Abbass’s childhood, but there are also moments that shine through — such as when Abbass unearths some of the poetry she wrote in her younger years.
There is obviously a lot to be said in the film about the conflicts in Palestine, but the film does not feel overtly political. Instead, the political elements result from the feelings of sadness and mourning that the subjects experience. While it’s refreshing to see a film so firmly focused on the human aftermath of this crisis, it also feels like the film pulls a few too many punches.
The more interesting narrative thread is Abbass’s internal conflict — her guilt over leaving her family to pursue her dream of becoming an actress and paving the way for a better future for herself. This portion is the film’s most intensely humanistic, a story that many viewers will relate to and sympathize with regardless of their background, ethnicity, or beliefs.
Soualem’s sense of visual style as a filmmaker is quite strong. The film blends together archive footage from a few different eras with modern gonzo-style footage, and the combination weaves this multi-generational story together wonderfully. The cinematography is particularly excellent in the modern-day section, with plenty of beautiful landscape shots that really sell the subjects’ longing.
One has to wonder… if Bye Bye Tiberias did not have an acclaimed, internationally recognized actress as its subject, would a film like this ever be getting this big of a platform? The answer is probably no. While Soualem’s documentary is entirely competent and often engaging, its story feels too small — and yet also not small enough — to leave much of a lasting impression.
Bye Bye Tiberias is screening at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival, which runs September 7-17 in Toronto, Canada.