'The Man Who Sold His Skin': Tunisia's dark Oscars nomination

Najeh Mouelhi-Makni and Caroline Nelly Perrot
·3-min read

It's a troubling political fable shot with a sophisticated aesthetic, and Tunisia's first-ever Academy Award nomination: "The Man Who Sold His Skin".

Part dark satire, part romantic drama, the film tells the story of lovelorn Syrian refugee Sam Ali (Yahya Mahayni) who is able to travel to Europe thanks to a Faustian pact.

When a contemporary artist tattoos a European Schengen visa across his back, Ali finds himself able to cross international borders as a living work of art.

Tunisian writer-director Kaouther Ben Hania ventured outside her native country to dive into two contrasting worlds -- of refugees and contemporary art.

"I couldn't stand the victimisation discourse on refugees anymore," said the director, Ben Hania.

"My intention from the start was to make him a contemporary hero who comes out on top and turns the adventure to his advantage."

The story is partly inspired by the real-life tale of a Belgian man, Tim Steiner, who sold the right to tattoo his back, occasionally exhibit it, and recover the skin after his death, to the artist Wim Delvoye, who makes a cameo in the film.

The movie, shot in France, Belgium and Tunisia, alternates between a grating and tender tone as it highlights the cruel absurdity of a system where objects can travel more freely than people.

"The Man Who Sold His Skin" is shortlisted in the International Feature Film category for the Oscars, which are held on April 25.

Monica Bellucci plays a "fake blonde" gallerist while Syrian actor Yahya Mahayni portrays a sweet freedom-loving dreamer who oscillates between joy and anger in a volatile situation.

- 'Total dispossession' -

While the refugee is "in total dispossession of his body" during part of the story, "he eventually regains possession of it", said Ben Hania.

The characters in the story "resemble me, pushed to the extreme", she confided.

Like the Syrian refugee, she said, she has faced "problems of papers to leave for France".

And like the eccentric artist in the film, she said, "I reflect on my work to the extreme".

Her earlier films have already won awards, including "Beauty and the Dogs" about a young woman's quest for justice after being raped, and "Zaineb Hates the Snow", a documentary about a Tunisian teenager who migrates to Canada.

The Oscar nomination "is huge," admitted Ben Hania, who added that she regrets the lack of institutional support for cinema in Tunisia.

The film was co-produced with 25 international partners, including in Belgium, France, Germany, Sweden, Tunisia and Qatar, and shot by Lebanese cinematographer Christopher Aoun ("Capernaum").

Raising the budget of 2.5 million euros ($2.9 million) was "a challenge", according to one of the co-producers, Nedim Cheikhrouha, who said the project almost collapsed a year ago due to lack of funds.

At the Academy Awards, "The Man Who Sold His Skin" has fewer promotional resources than other contenders, the producers said.

Ben Hania -- who says she is now working on a film "on the edge of genres" between documentary and fiction -- hopes that the Oscar nomination will, at the very least, "make my next films a little easier".

"The Man Who Sold His Skin" was released this week in Tunisia and will screen in the United States from April 2, and in Sweden on April 23.

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