BEIRUT: When the 93rd Academy Awards ceremony is staged next month, one title from the Arab world will be in the running. “The Man Who Sold His Skin,” by Tunisia’s Kaouther Ben Hania, has been shortlisted for an Oscar in the best foreign language film category. This is the first time a Tunisian film has been given a seat at the table.
The writer-director’s fifth feature, “The Man Who Sold His Skin” is a story of star-crossed lovers, set within a morality tale of the global art market. The film premiered in the Orizzonti section of the 2020 Venice film festival, where it picked up a couple of prizes and went on to a respectable festival career, taking the best Arab film prize at El Gouna.
Given the recent calls for diversity in opportunity and awards in the US, it may be that a good-looking movie by a female filmmaker grabbed the attention of Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences members. It would be nice to imagine that in this, the tenth anniversary of the start of Syria’s civil uprising, an atypical Syrian refugee story also garnered the Academy’s approval, though that level of consciousness seems unlikely.
The film’s protagonist, Sam Ali (Yahya Mahayni), is arrested after impulsively declaring his love for his girlfriend Abir (Dea Liane), then flees the country to avoid Syria’s secret police. Months later Sam’s dropped off the face of the earth, so Abir submits to pressure from her bourgeois family and marries a well-placed haircut-moustache ensemble with a Foreign Ministry job in Belgium.
Sam, meanwhile, has been working in a Lebanese livestock factory, but he and a pal have a scam to enrich their diet – crashing the buffet tables of art events.
One evening Sam bluffs his way into the opening of a show by a Belgian artist named Jeffrey Godefroi (Koen De Bouw). Gallery staff recognize him and inform the artist’s assistant, Thuraya (Monica Bellucci). She mockingly outs him as a refugee, saying she’ll make sure the buffet scraps are bagged for him to take home.
Offended, Sam marches out but not before the kohl-eyed Godefroi offers to buy him a drink. Sam’s predicament inspires the artist to make a provocative new work, and asks the refugee to let him use his body as a canvas.
Sam will make some good coin from his deal so he accepts Godefroi’s offer, on the condition that he be relocated to Belgium, to be closer to Abir. The course of Sam and Abir’s love story is bound to be tortured. Genre demands it. Locating their melodrama within the rarefied confines of contemporary art – an industry that subsists from making, buying and selling fetish commodities – magnifies the ironies of the global refugee crisis.
The Godefroi character may strike casual viewers as a more-demonic, Flemmish-accented version of Damien Hirst. As the film acknowledges in its closing credits, Godefroi’s work is based on “Tim,” 2006-08, a tattoo that Belgian artist Wim Delvoye designed and installed on the back of Swiss national Tim Steiner – who’s been toured and exhibited ever since. (Delvoye makes a cameo in Ben Hania’s film as an insurance agent who, having put a price on the refugee’s pelt, remarks that his company’s perfectly fine if Sam dies of cancer, say, but if he gets blown to bits in an explosion, it will be a great inconvenience.)
Ben Hania is very clear in what she means to say in replacing Delvoye’s Swiss canvas with a Syrian one. She doesn’t explore her theme with much subtlety.
“We live in a very dark time,” Godefroi informs a fawning arts journalist in an interview. “If you are Syrian, Afghani, Palestinian ... you are persona non grata. The walls rise. I just made Sam a commodity, a canvas, so now he can travel around the world because, in the times we’re living, the circulation of commodities is much freer than that of human beings. By transforming him into some kind of merchandise, he now will be, according to the codes of our time, able to recover his humanity, his freedom. That’s a paradox, isn’t it.”
Though there are several things about “His Skin” that mark a departure from Ben Hania’s previous work (it’s the first to speak English, for instance) the story’s proximity to documentary is not among them. She’s made two features that are true docs, and a third, the winking “Chalat Tunis,” from 2013, that moves across an entertainingly muddy terrain between fiction and nonfiction.
“His Skin” has cinematic antecedents too. In 1996 Peter Greenaway released “The Pillow Book,” a work of cerebral and erotic art about a young woman with a fetish for having calligraphy inscribed upon her flesh, and for doing the same with her lovers – Ewan McGregor in particular.
More recently, Ruben Ostlund enjoyed great success with his 2017 feature “The Square,” a magnificent piss-take of the culture of self-righteousness that, some argue, is not alien to contemporary art circles.
Itself nominated for a Foreign Language Film Oscar, “The Square” looks to have been more influential to “His Skin.” This is evident in the look of the film (handsomely shot by Beirut-born DP Christopher Aoun), particularly its art world interiors.
Ben Hania’s film also has a scene reminiscent of a show-stopping set piece from “The Square,” both of which prick the bubble of sophisticated cool the industry likes to project. Ostlund depicts an uncomfortable dinnertime performance, while Ben Hania represents the auction of Godefroi’s finished work.
Some audiences admire the Greenaway as a self-consciously aesthetic work unconstrained by convention. Those who prefer a politically engaged cinema (and have nothing better to do during lockdown) will find a lot to chew on by seeing Ostlund and Ben Hania alongside one another. Ostlund too takes up the matter of Arab migration to Europe, as it’s his protagonist’s treatment of a boy from a poor refugee family that throws his hypocrisy into stark relief.
After a decade that’s seen the Syrian people depicted as monsters or the monsters’ victims, it is refreshing to watch a story in which a Syrian hero is given agency over his life. This alone will compel many viewers to forgive the directness of Ben Hania’s messaging.
Yet, after erecting the elaborate machinery of consequences arising from Sam’s contract with Godefroi, the resolution of his story does seem abrupt and pat (literature students will recognize the artist’s role in this story is closer to deus ex machina than satan). In the story’s message – “even if you have to sell your body to live, freedom is a state of mind” – some will find an amoral moral.
The 93rd Academy Awards will be announced Monday, April 26, 3-6 a.m. Eastern European Time