• Golden Globe Awards

The Man Who Sold His Skin (Tunisia)

After exposing the abuse of a rape victim by police officers in her 2017 film, Beauty and the Dogs, Tunisian director Kaouther Ben Hania turns her attention to another kind of abuse of the powerless by the powerful in her latest movie, The Man Who Sold His Skin.
The protagonist of the film is Sam, a young Syrian from Raqqa, who’s deeply in love with his sweetheart, Abeer. A year after their relationship begins, the Syrian uprising explodes and Sam ends up in jail, while Abeer is forced into a betrothal with the Syrian ambassador to Belgium. Sam breaks out of jail and escapes to Beirut, where he seeks free food at art galleries. When he’s caught, a Euro-American artist offers to use his back as a canvas to ink a Schengen visa, the piece of paper he needs in order to gain entry into Europe.
Desperate to reconnect with Abeer in Belgium, Sam agrees. But when he arrives in Europe, he realizes that he has become a product, owned by the artist and expected to be exhibited in art museums for the pleasure of art lovers. However, there’s a silver lining – unlike the harsh Syrian prison, Europe is a gilded cage, with all the trappings of celebrity life: opulent hotels, lavish parties, exotic food, and expensive champagne.
Amazingly Sam’s story is not a work of fiction but rather based on the story of Swiss national Tim Steiner, whose back was tattooed in 2008 by a Belgian artist, Wim Delovoye, and who would sit in galleries around the world as a living exhibition. Ben Hania changed the character to a Syrian refugee because she wanted to highlight the hypocrisy of the European elite, who, for thousands of years, have imported people of color from their colonies, caged them like exotic animals, and trained them to perform on stages for the amusement of “civilized” spectators.
The film also mocks the art world’s double standards. On the one hand, the artist claims to be highlighting the plight of refugees, yet on the other, he demeans Sam and exhibits him as an inanimate object in art galleries, then puts him on auction for the highest bidder. So in a way, art is another exploitative system that profiteers from the predicament of the disenfranchised.
With the loss of his freedom, Sam loses his identity, and gradually his sanity. Abeer is his only hope for recovery. But he has to pass through her brutally jealous husband in order to get to her.
The Man Who Sold His Skin was premiered in the Horizon Section at the 77th Venice Film Festival, where it won the Best Actor award for its Syrian lead, Yahya Mahayni. It continued to score more prestigious awards as it traveled to other festivals around the world.