Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Mon Jan 08, 2024 5:20 pm 
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Daughter's doc about actress Hiam Abbas return to her Palestinian homeland could have used more scope and context

Followers of Arab and Israeli cinema know the name of actress Hiam Abbas, who is now 63, for starring roles in niche films going back to the nineties. She was also in French films, having emigrated to France, leaving behind n her early twenties her birthplace of Nazareth, her seven sisters and the Palestinian village of Deir Hanna where she grew up i. Now she is an international star who appears in Blade Runner 2049 and widely entered the consciousness as Marcia Roy, the mysterious, awesome, rather scary wife of Brian Cox' Logan Roy, the head of the dynasty in HBO's "Succession.". The casting agent was right to choose her. Hiam Abbass exudes a hardness, authority, and closed-down austerity that's unique and powerful. She is a memorable actress, and the more remarkable as perhaps the lone Arab Palestinian actress in international films.

You would not know that from this film by her daughter Lina Soualem, who accompanied her in a long-delayed return to Deir Hamma and review of her early history using home movies and stock footage to tell the story of her, her mother, and her grandmother, of the 1948 nakba when Palestinians were expelled for the founding of the state of Israel, and the conservatism of Hiam Abbass' family from which she fled. Soualem provides background of this fraught history, so much in the public eye today with Israel's ethnic cleansing and genocide of the Palestinians of Gaza, only insofar as family members refer to it. She acknowledges that her mother is an actress who moved to Paris long ago (not explaining what led to that choice) and became a French citizen.

But she provides no information about the distinction and range of her mother's acting career. Acting is seen more as something the local female relatives see as distancing Hiam from them. They seem to know nothing of her fame, so it is not alluded to. This film is like a home movie - it has that feel from the start - though by someone with professional camera equipment, access to archival footage, and editing equipment to be sure, with the adding of a nice score, but little aim beyond making a nicely-packaged film record of a trip back home and review of family history. How a wider audience would understand this, what they would additionally want to know, Soualem seems not to have thought about, not enough, anyway. Had she done so, this might have been a stunning film.

In early scenes, Soualem andd Abbass sort through old photos. This is the main object - a home movie sort of one - at first: to establish the generations of women of which Soualem, daughter from Hiam Abbass' divorced second husband, is the youngest. First is Hiam's grandmother Umm Ali and her vibrant mother Neimat. We see footage of the three of them, with Hiam young and beautiful and Lina a little girl, and Umm Ali still there. Later we see a "much older Nemat in a wheelchair, pushed by a 50-something Abbass" - I quote from Alissa Simon's Variety review, because I find this hard to follow, partly because of a lack of chronological guidelines.

What emerges is that when Hiam first left Palestine - made possible because unlike the majority of Palestinians she had an Israeli passport, though as Simon mentions, this aspect is left unmentioned and unexplored - she severed ties with the family. (Why? this isn't delved into, though she could have asked on camera Soualem and Abbass are constantly together in the film's present-time footage.) This went on till Lina was a young girl, and then Hiam began revisiting the homeland and taking little Lina to swim in the Sea of Galilee ("Tiberias") every year, baptizing her as it were in her ancestral waters.

And so we understand the languages, because Lina, though raised elsewhere, can speak Palestinian Arabic as well as French. These are the two constantly mixed and alternated idioms of this film. But the family members, who remained in what used to be Palestine, speak only Arabic.

The more we see of the hidebound traditionalism - and toughness - of this family even today, the more extraordinary Hiam Abbass's total escape from it, and the richness of her international acting career, begin to seem to us. How did this happen? It seems the materials for an explanation are here, but not fully explored. We learn that Hiam was the sexiest and most risk-taking daughter, that she got involved with a man with no intention of marrying him and told her father about it and he was outraged. We learn how she went to a photography course and became a professional photographer, and was involved in acting with a stage company. We learn of a brief first marriage to an Englishman. But how did she arrive at the decision to escape to France, and how did she do it? That remains for another chapter.

The history of Israel destruction of Arab villages and the flight of village populations from place to place is here. It will have a special resonance with coverage of the horrific events in Israel and Gaza since October 7, 2023 fresh in the minds of viewers.

Another unanswered question is how Palestinian families like Hiam Abbass' have survived and remained there. One plangent footnote is provided: the story of Hiam's aunt Hosnieh, one of her mother's older sisters, who in 1948 wound up on the Syrian side of the border and trapped in a refugee camp and cut off from the family for 30 years. Hiam used her French passport to go there and visit Hosnieh, who clung to her "like a magnet" with the compulsion to recapture the fragrance of family.

There is extraordinary material here of devastating loss and upheaval, rigid ethnic restriction overcome, great achievement, lasting family bonds in spite of everything, and deep and direct connection with turbulent and shocking, ongoing modern history. But one is left with frustration that more was not made of it, that wider resonance and context were not achieved.

Bye Bye Tiberias, 82 mins., debuted at Venice (as part of Giornate degli autori) Sept. 3, 2023, also showing at Toronto, BFI London, Leipzig, Chicago; festival appearances ongoing into 2024. US theatrical release in New York Jan. 12, 2024 and Los Angeles Jan. 19. Reviewed on an online screener Jan. 5, 2024.

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