In March 2021, a film from Tunisia received that country’s first ever Oscar nomination for Best International Film. THE MAN WHO SOLD HIS SKIN had already made noise the previous September when it premiered at the Venice International Film Festival. It’s star, Syrian actor Yahya Mahayni, who was appearing in his first feature film, took home that event’s Best Actor Award.
Inspired by a true event, THE MAN WHO SOLD HIS SKIN tells the story of Sam Ali (Mahayni), a young Syrian refugee living in Lebanon, who agrees to let renowned and provocative visual artist, Jeffrey Godefroi (Belgian actor Koen De Bouw), use his back as a canvas in exchange for a Schengen visa that will allow him to travel to Belgium where his former fiancée, Abeer (stage actress Dia Liane), now lives with the rich man she was forced to marry. Ironically, Godefroi tattoos an image of a Schengen visa on Ali’s back and now, because Ali is no longer a person but a work of art, he is free to travel. That freedom, though, comes with a cost as Ali finds that he’s been commoditized.
Tunisian writer-director Kaouther Ben Hania, whose film BEAUTY AND THE DOGS was selected as Tunisia’s Best Foreign Language Film Oscar entry in 2019, takes the real-life story of Tim Steiner, a Swiss national who sold his skin to Belgian artist Wim Delvoye — who makes a cameo in the film as an insurance broker — in 2006 as the jumping off point for her story about refugees, immigration and the price of freedom. (Delvoye tattooed an elaborate depiction of the Virgin Mary over the full length of Steiner’s back. As a living piece of art, Steiner is contractually obligated to appear in galleries and museums around the world and, like Ali, has been sold at least once to a private art collector. In Steiner’s case, it was to the wife of a Nazi officer who collected the tattooed skin of Jewish Holocaust victims.)
Though Ali does get the freedom that he craves, he quickly becomes a lightning rod for various groups who see him being exploited and debased by rich, White Europeans. His only worth is as a piece of art. There is no room for humanity, which is a reality that Jeffrey’s icy assistant, Soraya (Monica Bellucci, SPECTRE) regularly reminds him. Like Steiner, Ali quickly learns to plug in his headphones and listen to music whenever he’s on display so that he doesn’t have to hear the hurtful comments coming from people who have come out to see his back.
For the most part, THE MAN WHO SOLD HIS SKIN is a winner thanks to Mahayni’s immensely sympathetic performance and Ben Hania’s thoughtful imagery. Unfortunately, the story doesn’t go far enough in its indictment of either the art world or the West, which hasn’t done enough to help refugees. The notion of bargaining with the Devil could have been further developed too.
Although it’s already played in many countries around the world, THE MAN WHO SOLD HIS SKIN opens in Hong Kong on July 7th. It’s also available for purchase or rental from Amazon Prime, iTunes and Google Play.
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