The Academy Awards are less than a month away which means it’s time to binge-watch as many of the nominations as you can before the ceremony. This week you can add to your list The Man Who Sold His Skin, the Tunisian nominee for Best International Feature.
The Man Who Sold His Skin, follows Syrian refugee Sam Ali (Yahya Mahayni) who flees to Lebanon in order to evade imprisonment. Sam’s girlfriend Abeer (Dea Liane) is left in war-torn Syria and reluctantly follows her parent’s wishes to marry a man who works at the embassy in Belgium. In Lebanon, Sam meets the provocative contemporary artist Jeffrey Godefroi (Koen De Bouw) who promises to secure Sam a Visa to travel to Belgium and be with Abeer. In return, Sam will become Jeffrey’s human canvas. The artist tattoos Sam’s back with the image of a Schengen Visa, which literally turns the refugee into art that will sit in museums during exhibitions and can be sold to art collectors. Motivated by love, Sam is thrown into a pretentious art world that only values him as a piece of skin, which is something he finds he cannot carry forever.
Writer and director Kaouther Ben Hania (Beauty and the Dogs) found inspiration for the movie from Belgium artist Wim Delvoye and his piece Tim. Delvoye, known previously for his controversial tattoos on pigs, tattooed the back of former tattoo parlour manager Tim Steiner. Sam’s deal as a human canvas mimics Steiner’s. In fact, Tim Steiner was even bought by a German art collector and his skin will be removed from his body and preserved upon his death.
Hania explores the complexities and ethics surrounding Delvoye’s art but also adapts it to address the refugee crisis. Sam sells his back to the art world because he only gains the freedom to travel by making himself a commodity. This is something that Jeffrey Godfroi is keenly aware of and exploits by tattooing the visa on Sam’s back. Hania found a unique and eye-opening way to comment on privileges certain individuals have while refugees face more restrictions than a painting.
While the film intelligently comments on the Syrian refugee crisis, it is really about Sam and his attempts to be with the woman that he loves. His limitations and actions stem from his status as a refugee, but the film in no way attempts to represent the struggle of all Syrian refugees.
In fact, the majority of the film’s aesthetics take place in the art world Sam is thrown into. The mirrored walls, colored lighting, and contemporary designs of these sets make the film appear like a futuristic dystopia. I often recalled The Capital from The Hunger Games in which obnoxiously clad civilians too viewed poorer individuals as commodities. The Man Who Sold His Skin presents this dystopian trope to be a reality.
Sam may not be a real person, but Tim is and the skin on his back is literally owned by another person. What’s equally true are the limitations refugees face in traveling and their commodification in instanced of human trafficking—something also discussed in the movie.
What The Man Who Sold His Skin does best is present a situation that evokes an unlimited amount of questions. How can a man be sold? Is the art revolutionary or exploitative? The cinematography and set design also cooperate to express this art world that’s both enticing and disturbing.
Yet, it is difficult to fully connect with Sam as something beyond an angry canvas. While I enjoyed seeing how he’d push back against his “owners” (for lack of a better term) it was unclear what he wanted besides being with Abeer. He is fully motivated by his love and lacks much respect or value for himself. Abeer and Sam’s love story
Nonetheless, The Man Who Sold His Skin, like its artist Jeffrey Godefroi, is provocative and thought-provoking and should definitely be added to your award season watchlist.
The Man Who Sold His Skin will open in theaters in New York April 2 and in Los Angeles and other cities April 9.