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“The Man Who Sold His Skin” An Interview with Kaouther Ben Hania

September 9, 2020

Kaouther Ben Hania’s first narrative feature film Beauty and the Dogs revealed a filmmaker who carries in herself and on her characters a unique, impactful look. It left no one indifferent during its screening in 2017 at the Cannes film festival. This powerful gaze, we had already experienced through her many riveting documentaries.

Presently, her new film, The Man Who Sold His Skin, is world premiering at the Venice Film Festival.

The Man Who Sold His Skin tells the story of Sam Ali, a young sensitive and impulsive Syrian, who fled his homeland for Lebanon to escape the war. To travel to Europe and live with the love of his life, he accepts to have his back tattooed by one of by the world’s most notorious contemporary artists.

The Man Who Sold His Skin is a title that works on so many levels. What was your thinking? 
Yes, it does. And it’s also the logline for the movie because you have this guy who accepts a Faustian deal, involving his skin becoming a canvas to the work of an artist. So, in a way, he sold his skin, literally. But he’s also sold his skin in a more allegoric or symbolic form, as selling you skins means to market your inner beliefs.

The idea pays homage to the work of Belgium artist Wim Delvoye, who famously tattooed someone’s back and displayed it as a piece of art. Did you involve Mr Delvoye in the project? 
Exactly, that was the seed for this movie. Wim Delvoye is a contemporary artist who questions the limits and frontier of the art market. The first time I saw his work, it was in the Louvre in Paris, when they displayed a retrospective of Wim’s work. I saw this guy sitting in the Napoleon III apartment rooms of the museum, and I was shocked that a tattooed man was being displayed as part of the exhibition. So I approached Wim and told him I wanted to do a movie inspired by his work, but also be different from it. He agreed, and I even gave Wim a cameo. He played the part of the insurance man, valuing the skin of this Syrian refugee who is tattooed. He was impressed with the tattoo we created – it was adapted from his work, specially designed for the movie.

Was that how you managed to feature so much of his other work in the scenes?
In the script, there was a scene in a museum. So, we started looking for a location in Belgium, because the film is a Belgian co-production. It just so happened that at the same time, the Royal Museum of Fine Arts of Belgium was exhibiting Wim Delvoye’s work. We asked to shoot in the museum, which was very complicated, it is not simple, but in the end, we received permission. So we were fortunate to be, we shot in a museum with Wim’s work exhibited and we didn’t have to build a set. It was like a sign, a destiny.

Has Wim Delvoye seen the film? 
We showed him the movie recently. And after, we talked on the phone for maybe two hours. He was excited by the story. He said he loved the movie and was very proud to have participated in it.

You told Wim that you wanted your work to be different from his? What were you inspired by, and what were you striving for in your film? 
I had this intuition from the beginning, to explore this artist who is questioning the limits of the market. It’s a provocation, to bring a human being and say, “It’s my work of art.” It’s like a trap because a big establishment runs the art world. You have a buyer, a museum, critics, and investor. They are used to having an inanimate object deal with, to buy and to exhibit. So, when Wim did this thing, with the human being, it was like mocking the art market. “I bring you this, tell me what you will do with this.” It’s a wonderful conceit because at some time the art will disappear and will then lose its value. When the back does not belong to anybody, then it can fade and become obsolete.

Can you tell us about creating an image of an artist that we rarely see in the movies?
It’s something that I was thinking about a lot, in many movies about an artist, the character of an artist has this kind of image of being someone battling with his demons, like Van Gogh. He’s not recognized, he’s this misunderstood genius and he’s sometimes alcoholic. But the present-day artists are different. When you see Jeff Koons or Damien Hirst, or all these figures of contemporary art have an entrepreneurial profile, they are more like Mark Zuckerberg. They have confidence, and they are creating an image, a signature. They are businessmen. So, I want to make an artist like this, with charisma, who wants all his work to be sold. I wanted to create another viewpoint of the artist figure.

You then juxtapose this artist figure with that of a refugee. What was the thinking behind this fascinating combination?  
When I was writing The Man Who Sold His Skin, I was very interested in the mechanism of the art world. It’s something that fascinates me, and I have my own point of view about art. What does it mean, contemporary art today? It’s very elitist. You have a happy few, having access to this world. It’s becoming a place where investors go and invest their money. So, it’s more than art. It’s something bigger than art. I was also interested in the fate of all these refugees in Europe. So, I mixed the two topics that I was interested in, which allowed me to confront these two separate worlds. They are very different. So, then you have your imagination, which allows you to say, “What if the refugee become part of this art world with his naive gaze, will we understand this world better because he will not show us the official viewpoint?” It’s how things work. I wasn’t thinking about confrontation. I was just thinking about the topic that interests me, that excites me.

Was it difficult to cast the part of Syrian refugee Sam Ali?
I went through a long casting process and watched a lot of self-tapes. I wanted the actor to be Syrian. We met many Syrian actors, known and not known, different profiles. The Syrian actors are wonderful, but none of them was the character, Sam Ali. I wanted someone very flexible and who met a lot of criteria. When I saw the self-tape of Yahya Mahayni, I knew it was him. I asked to meet, and we did a lot of other auditions. I wanted to be sure. He was talented as an actor. He can go from one emotion to another. Also, he had the perfect back for this story.

In Beauty and the Dogs, the main character was female. What was it like writing for a leading man? 
When you are a screenplay writer, you have this chance to go above your gender and your appearance. You have this chance to go through another possibility of you. Every character I write, they have something from me, that is close to me. So, for Sam Ali, one could say he’s a male character and he’s Syrian. I’m not male, I’m not Syrian and I’m not a refugee. I’ve never been through something like this, but for me, this context is an element. The main obsession for me when I build a character is not gender. For me, it is his emotional journey. Sam Ali is very, spontaneous and free in his head. He’s living in a world with a lot of rules, he’s living in a dictatorship. I’ve been living under a dictatorship, in Tunisia, before the revolution. Sam Ali can’t really express himself and when he expresses himself, he finds himself in a bad situation. Because he’s born on this side of the world, he can’t travel wherever he wants. Similarly, I have a Tunisian passport. So, many times I’ve been invited to go to a film festival and I couldn’t go because I need the visa, and to obtain a visa I have to go through a crazy process. I find this so silly because I don’t feel less worthy than any person born in the ‘right place.’ So, you have this inequality that we inherit, and that I understand very well.

How did you come to cast Monica Bellucci?
She had this kind of image of the icon, of beauty, but behind this image, I was really amazed to encounter a very sensitive, intelligent and wonderful woman. I didn’t know her before. We just sent the script to her agent, she read it and said yes, directly to me. I was really amazed that she understood my intention. You have a hidden meaning in the dialogue, in the characters and it was amazing how she understood everything, beyond her own role.

Your film is premiering at the Venice Film Festival where previously you have been part of the jury. How do you approach this first festival after the period of confinement caused by COVID-19?
I mean, as you can see, this pandemic, it’s been very hard for cinema. It’s been very hard for everyone, but especially for cinema since it is a gathering. We were doing the last things in post-production, and then we hit lockdown. I was thinking, “It’s like I just did a movie and it will never be shown” That was my fear! And it’s very hard, when you work hard, so hard for this movie and you have lockdown and cinemas are shut and all the festivals are suspended or delayed. It was a very depressing time for me and since I’m not the only filmmaker in this situation, we have a considerable number of movies completed all over the world waiting to go into cinemas. So, I think the Venice Film Festival, as the first big festival, had a lot of movies to consider and I was like, “Maybe they will never take my movie.” So, I was happy to know that the film was selected. Now, I can move forward to the next project, because this movie, it will start its life in Venice. There will be a life. I’m happy that the film is selected in Venice, especially this year because it’s not like other years.