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INTERVIEW: Tunisian Kaouther Ben Hania on her film The Man Who Sold His Skin

The Man Who Sold His Skin is Tunisia's submission to Academy Award nomination

Nahed Nasr , Tuesday 16 Feb 2021
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The celebrated Tunisian filmmaker Kaouther Ben Hania recently announced the appearance of her latest film The Man Who Sold His Skin on the 93rd Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film shortlist. Tunisia had submitted films since 1995. Together with 14 other films, The Man Who Sold His Skin is the first to make it this far. The winner will be announced on 15 March.

The film premiered at the 77th annual Venice International Film Festival where it won two awards, the Edipo Re Award for Inclusion which went to Ben Hania, and the Orizzonti Award for Best Actor which went to the Syrian Actor Yahya Mahayni who played the main role. It also won the best screenplay award (Ben Hania) at the 2020 Stockholm Film Festival. The Middle East premiere took place at the fourth El Gouna Film Festival, where it won the El Gouna Golden Star for the Best Arab Film in the Feature Narrative Competition. It had been among the winning CineGouna SpringBoard projects in development during the second El Gouna Film Festival in 2018.  

The Man who sold his Skin is the story of Sam Ali (Mahayni), a young man who leaves his native Syria for Lebanon to escape the war. Meanwhile the love of his life, Abeer (Dea Liane), is married off to a man she does not love who can take her to Europe. Sam is desperate to follow Abeer to Europe, and to this end he agrees to have his back tattooed by one of the world’s most popular contemporary artists, who plans on turning him – a refugee – into a work of art. Sam bears the brunt of dehumanisation and captivity.

According to Ben Hania, the idea for The Man Who Sold His Skin emerged in 2012 while she was visiting the Louvre in Paris: “At the time there was a retrospective of the Belgian artist Wim Delvoye. There I saw, in the Napoleon III Apartments, Delvoye’s Tim, in which the artist had tattooed the back of Tim Steiner, who was sitting on an armchair with his shirt off displaying Delvoye’s design. Since that moment, this singular and transgressive image did not leave me. Little by little, other elements of my experience, searing realities and unforeseen encounters served to enrich this image.” She did not complete the story of The Man Who Sold his Skin until 2014 during the editing of her award-winning film Beauty and the Dogs (2017).

One strong element of this film is the way Ben Hania was able to cast actors with sharply varied levels of experience, with first-timers appearing alongside Monica Bellucci as Soraya Waldy. “I personally adore Monica Bellucci. I sent her the script, and she loved the role. Soraya is a woman with the haughty, snobbish attitude sometimes seen in people who are settled in their jobs and self-confident. Although Bellucci in life is an extraordinarily humble and sensitive person, she knows the art world well and she immediately understood the character. I remember she called me during the preparations to tell me we needed to meet because she had a clear idea of ​what Soraya looked like. When she laid out her vision in the meeting, it exactly matched the image I had! We were on the same page from the beginning.”

On the other hand, playing Abeer is the Syrian stage actress Dea Liane in her first movie role. “Abeer is a young woman from a good family, a little bourgeois, who expresses the very kind side of a girl who obeys her parents and doesn’t want to take risks. A girl who needs to be shaken out of her comfort zone. Dea has this rigour and this capacity for the role. It was a real pleasure to work with her.”

As for the role of Sam Ali, Ben Hania was searching for a solid actor who had the ability to move from one register to another with ease – an actor, as she puts it, with a broad emotional palette “Sam Ali is a sensitive, impulsive, genuine and whole character. He is a lively, flayed man who defends himself with a strong sense of irony and dark humour. The casting took a long time, but when I saw Yahya Mahayni’s audition, I immediately recognised him as a rough diamond, an actor capable of carrying the film on his back.”

 But The Man Who Sold His Skin is that rare thing: an Arab film that combines visual beauty with controversial subject matter. It deals with the catastrophic consequences of war, the dialogue between east and west, the fundamental meaning of art and what it means to be an artist, among other issues. But every scene is beautiful. According to Ben Hania, the film embodies the meeting of two otherwise completely separate worlds, governed by completely separate codes: that of contemporary art and that of refugees, that of elitist freedom and that of bare survival.

To connect the two worlds in a visually compelling context, Ben Hania studied art history, especially the representation of the human body in painting: “I gathered an arsenal of images, photos and paintings that could nourish the visual universe of the film. I also storyboarded the majority of the scenes based on the sets selected. At the end of this design work, I met Christopher Aoun, my cinematographer, with whom I spent days and nights discussing every scene, every frame, every tone and colour in the film. Nothing was left to chance”. Ben Hania believes that a filmmaker makes films to be seen worldwide. Cinematic language is the most international and widely understood language in the world. Images are universal, although style is personal and it is the story of the movie that dictates the film style. “In The man who sold his skin, I wanted to give the story this impression of a contemporary tale, so that is how my DOP and I conceived the imagery.”

Born in Sidi Bouzid in 1977, Ben Hania is one of the most outstanding Arab woman filmmakers. In a relatively short time, her films have gained international and regional recognition. A commerce graduate and loyal member of the Tunisian Federation of Amateur Filmmakers, Ben Hania joined the School of Arts and Cinema of Tunis (EDAC) between 2002 and 2004, directing three short films including the award-winning La brèche (2004). In 2004, she followed documentary training at the Fémis summer school in Paris before enrolling in continuing education in the screenplay department in 2005. Her previous film Beauty and the Dogs premiered at the Cannes Film Festival’s official selection “Un Certain Regard” in 2017, winning the Best Sound Creation Award. It was distributed in many countries. Challat of Tunis, her first feature, opened the ACID section at the Cannes Film Festival in 2014 and was also widely distributed. Her second documentary Zaineb Hates the Snow premiered at the Locarno Film Festival in 2016 and won several awards. Imams Go to School, her first documentary, premiered at IDFA 2010. She also directed several shorts, including Wooden Hand (2013) and Sheikh’s Watermelons (2018) which had a long and successful run on the international festival circuit.

On the cusp of an Oscar she finds filmmaking “a very tough job, but so exciting”. A film is like a marathon, it takes years of one’s life. It takes discipline and a lot of work. You have to research, read, learn and be deeply interested in the human soul, history, literature, philosophy and the current political context. You have to forge a vision of the world to  be able to say something interesting. This observation is valid for men as well as women who want to do this job. “But I’m not naive about the expectations people can have of a female director coming from the South like me. In fact, the first feedback I had about The Man Who Sold His Skin was just this sentence that kept coming back: It’s unexpected! Talking about the refugees in Europe or contemporary art in a visual allegory full of colours was unusual for my Tunisian director profile. Being a screenwriter, a director also means having the ability to think outside the box of your own identity. During the process of writing and directing this film, I myself had to become a Syrian refugee, a contemporary artist, an internationally renowned gallery owner, a young girl trapped in marriage.  Only this otherness, this desire to explore allowed me to approach something unexpected.”

Kaouther Ben Hania’s most recent film project is Olaf’s Daughters, a documentary in the making which won the award of the in-development documentary projects of the seventh Cairo Film Connection (CFC) at the last round of the Cairo International Film Festival (CIFF). The project is a creative documentary, bordering on fiction. It covers, from the point of view of the Tunisian actress Hind Sabri, 10 years of the turbulent and agitated experience of Olfa, a Tunisian mother in her forties, a housekeeper from a poor background, who has seen her two teenage daughters become radicalized, run away, join Daesh in Libya and end up imprisoned there following an American attack.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 18 February, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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