'The Man Who Sold His Skin': From the Louvre to the Oscar's Shortlist
By: Areeb Zuaiter/Arab America Contributing Writer
‘The Man Who Sold his Skin’ challenges the impossible concept of freedom and its limits. Fused with dark humor and satire, this drama offers a fresh look at a Faustian Bargain where the western world of contemporary arts meets the Middle Eastern world of political crisis. Through a simple love story, the film skillfully interweaves complicated layers of the inegalitarian systems, politics, and art.
‘The Man Who Sold His Skin’ Premiered at Venice International Film Festival in 2020 and won the Edipo Re Inclusion Award along with the Orizzonti Award for Best Actor. Recently, ‘The Man Who Sold His Skin’ was listed among the fifteen films that advanced for the next round of voting in the International Feature Film category for the Academy Awards this year. This marks Tunisia’s first Academy Award entry to make it that far in this category and Kaouther Ben Hania‘s second submission.
When Ben Hania visited the Louvre Museum years ago, little did she know that this visit will give birth to her upcoming work of art. The narrative explores various layers of freedom in today’s cynical world. ‘The Man Who Sold His Skin’ tells the story of Sam Ali (Yahya Mahayni); a young Syrian refugee who gets hurled into a cynical world. Sam has one goal; to join his true love in Belgium. In the process, Sam ends up lending his back as a canvas.
What inspired ‘The Man Who Sold His Skin’?
Kaouther: This film was not inspired by a true story. It was inspired by contemporary artist Wim Delvoye‘s work. I came across his work at the Louvre Museum in Paris. Wim’s art piece; Tim was intriguing. He literally tattooed the back of Tim Steiner, a former tattoo parlor manager, and exhibited him in the museum. I started thinking; “what if this was a novel, who would be the character to play Tim’s role? What are the circumstances that would lead that character to agree to employ his back and exhibit it to everyone?” It was then and there when everything started. I immediately started sketching that character in my head. It made total sense to interlace the plot with the Syrian narrative. Little by little, things got bigger. The story fed itself and lead to the creation of this film.
Did you end up involving Mr. Delvoye in the work that he inspired?
Kaouther: I definitely reached out to Wim Delvoye when I started working on this piece. In fact, he was somehow cautious. I told him that I’m writing this piece that is inspired by his work. He said, “write whatever you want but I don’t want it to be that close to my work”. He was not really aware of what I was going to do with it.
When I started working with the actors, Koen De Bouw; who is considered a star in Belgium, and who plays Jeffrey Godefroi in the film, suggested talking to Wim Delvoye as part of the research for his role. I connected both of them together. They became best friends. Because of Koen’s involvement, Wim felt that the film is actually that serious. Wim then asked to take part in the film. I offered him the insurance guy role and he said, “perfect!”
Once we were done, we hosted a small screening. Wim really fell in love with the film that he called me and talked about the film for two hours. He even complimented the tattoo we designed and said that it has a great impact and political impression.
Did he participate in the design of the tattoo?
Kaouther: No, it was all our design. But, believe it or not, his artwork is there in the film. We were looking for a museum as a location to film. It is one of the hardest things to film in a museum. It came to our attention that on the same dates we’re filming, the Fine Art Museum in Brussels had a retrospective of Wim Delvoye’s work. We called them, explained to them that our film is inspired by Wim Delvoye, and asked to film there. They did open their doors for us and we filmed with Wim Delvoir’s work around the character. I guess the stars were aligned.
In ‘The Man Who Sold His Skin,’ there is a combination of celebrity actors as well as new faces. How did you decide on the cast?
Kaouther: When I wrote the main character, Sam was clear in my head. The process was very long. It took around 6 months. In the end, I received a self-taped audition for Yehia. It was more of a discovery. The character he was going to play is difficult and he is the lead role. I, therefore, asked him to come over and do further trials. He was extremely good.
In fact, when Yehia came to audition, my producer was certain that he will get recognition the moment the film gets screened. And, indeed, this is exactly what happened. Yehia ended up receiving the Orizzonti Award for Best Actor at Venice International Film Festival, where we premiered!
Although Yehia only acted in shorts, he is someone who has something so intuitive. Acting comes so naturally to him. He has great energy that enables him to change his voice and his looks. I was looking for sarcasm and for dark humor. He gave me all of that.
As for Monica Bellucci, I couldn’t wish for an easier process. We sent the scenario to her agent. She was familiar with my work; especially my previous film, Beauty and the Dogs. She automatically agreed and she was perfect for Soraya’s role.
As a Tunisian, how easy was it to tell a Syrian story?
Kaouther: This is the first narrative I tell outside of the scope of Tunisia. I really believe this story chose me. It came to me on its own. When I started forming the narrative in my head, I didn’t really think about it as a Syrian or a Tunisian plot. The story needed a Syrian character; it was that simple. The Syrian circumstances fit perfectly with the idea’s narrative.
I often think of it as cause-and-effect. What happened in Tunisia sparked the 10-year span of Arab revolutions. The whole thing started in Tunisia and the wave arrived at Syria and hit it really hard. I could not imagine any better nationality for this character but to be a Syrian. It was a given. After all, the Arab world shares the same problems, the same heritage, and the same history. I, consequently, found myself in a place where I, intuitively, was familiar with and knew very well.
There is veracity in the way you depicted the Syrian dialect and the Syrian attitude as well.
Kaouther: Perhaps the best compliment you can give to a filmmaker is when you tell them their work is believable or convincing. As narrative filmmakers, we literally work on making the not-believable believable. You have all these fabricated elements; the set, the lights, the actors, and the crew, who don’t even know each other. You have to do that extraordinary combination and convince people to believe it.
Because I am Tunisian and not Syrian, I always had that fear, that apprehension that I would not be able to express myself the way I wanted. I, of course, understand the Syrian dialect very well. However, I had to observe it and have myself understand it even more for me to get what I want from the characters on set.
You took an idea in a gallery and expanded it into a tale that is teeming with themes. Can you speak about your central theme?
Kaouther: For me, the main theme is freedom. What does freedom mean? Freedom is something that is nearly impossible. There are people who think that they are free because they are born on the right side of the world, where freedom is more attainable, and that is more affluent. That’s what Yehia tells Jeffrey when he meets with him for the first time. Then we find out that those people are not free either. Although freedom is a word that is so cherished, it is also so far-fetched.
In the film, Sam comes out of his way and beyond himself. We see him stripping out the human being out of himself to look for freedom. Yet, he doesn’t even get close. freedom remains far off.
Does this apply to the artist as well?
Kaouther: When you don’t have a choice, the issue of freedom becomes more difficult. But even if you have the choice, like in the case of the artist. At the end of the day, you’ll find out that you’re living in a system. For a person to be free in our current world and in our day, we are all tied up to our visa card, to Social Media. We’re tied to our emails, tied to our electricity bill, to the gas bill, to conformity, to the social security number. If we pile up all of these things and we decide to be free, it means that we go out of the system. To be free is not to exist.
How much research did you have to do to get The Man Who Sold His Skin’s plot working?
Kaouther: Perhaps the best thing about filmmaking is research. Every film gives you the chance to research a specific place and to know the rules of the game that apply to that world you’re creating. It gives you the chance to discover that world.
So the contemporary art world was more like a discovery for me. I love that world and I do a huge effort to follow it. But I never dug deep into it the same way I did for this film. So, I ended up buying books on contemporary art, following auctions, price rates for artists, etc. In addition, I am a curious person by nature. I love to discover new things and I just love research. Therefore, I did research every little detail you see in the film; every idea, every subject, and every domain; I researched the history of art, the human study, body schema, the evolution of the renaissance, and the artwork.
In addition, there was a huge folder that the Director of Photography and I shared. In that folder, you’ll find a reference for each frame. We did break down each frame. In addition to the narrative, we paid attention to the aesthetic side of the film, to the cinematic language.
Speaking of the aesthetics, did you have cinematic references?
Kaouther: There are small elements that inspired ‘The Man Who Sold His Skin.’ There are films that inspired it indirectly and others that did so directly. But for me, scouting and finding the right location where the events of the film will happen comes first. This is when I start thinking about the best way to utilize the space. It’s the step that inspires the scene composition; the mise en scene and how the characters will move. At that moment, things become concrete. This will tell me how to dress up the characters and how to use the set. At that point, I start thinking of points of inspiration; of other films that can inspire the work; of oil paintings; and photographs. Lots of things start coming to mind just by finding that right location.
What is the significance of ‘The Man Who Sold His Skin’ getting shortlisted for the Oscars?
Kaouther: Getting to this point is a historic moment for Tunisia. We did not have enough money for marketing. It was a surprise nonetheless that many voters watched it.
When Variety magazine did their initial prediction, ‘The Man Who Sold His Skin’ was not on their list. Then when the list came out, they wrote an article stating why they miss-predicted two films in the International Feature Film category; one of which was ours. They wrote that “There was chatter about ‘The Man Who Sold His Skin’ doing very well with Academy members, but also concerns that not enough would see it.” Us making it to the shortlist came as a surprise for them. They worried that not enough people will see it; because there was no marketing involved. It was as if the film fought for its existence. After all, it was the word of mouth, among voters that helped us make it through to this stage.
I hope we’ll get to the final five. This is our aim in the coming days; that the word of mouth continues.
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Areeb Zuaiter is an Arab American filmmaker whose work focuses on art, identity, and social issues. She was nominated for Sony’s Outstanding Thesis Award. Her debut short won the Jury Prize at the European Film Festival. And her latest documentary won multiple international awards. Alongside working on her debut feature documentary and her upcoming short narrative, Zuaiter works as an adjunct professor at American University.