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‘The Man Who Sold His Skin’: Tunisia’s Dark Oscars Nomination

‘The Man Who Sold His Skin’: Tunisia’s Dark Oscars Nomination

It’s a troubling political fable shot with a sophisticated aesthetic, and Tunisia’s first-ever Academy Award nomination: “The Man Who Sold His Skin”.


Part dark satire, part romantic drama, the film tells the story of lovelorn Syrian refugee Sam Ali (Yahya Mahayni) who is able to travel to Europe thanks to a Faustian pact.

When a contemporary artist tattoos a European Schengen visa across his back, Ali finds himself able to cross international borders as a living work of art.

Tunisian writer-director Kaouther Ben Hania ventured outside her native country to dive into two contrasting worlds, of refugees and contemporary art.

According to the director, Ben Hania:

I couldn’t stand the victimisation discourse on refugees anymore. My intention from the start was to make him a contemporary hero who comes out on top and turns the adventure to his advantage.

The story is partly inspired by the real-life tale of a Belgian man, Tim Steiner, who sold the right to tattoo his back, occasionally exhibit it, and recover the skin after his death, to the artist Wim Delvoye, who makes a cameo in the film.

The movie, shot in France, Belgium, and Tunisia, alternates between a grating and tender tone as it highlights the cruel absurdity of a system where objects can travel more freely than people.

“The Man Who Sold His Skin” is shortlisted in the International Feature Film category for the Oscars, which are held on April 25.

Monica Bellucci plays a “fake blonde” gallerist while Syrian actor Yahya Mahayni portrays a sweet freedom-loving dreamer who oscillates between joy and anger in a volatile situation.

While the refugee is “in total dispossession of his body” during part of the story, “he eventually regains possession of it”, said Ben Hania.

The film was co-produced with 25 international partners, including in Belgium, France, Germany, Sweden, Tunisia, and Qatar, and shot by Lebanese cinematographer Christopher Aoun (“Capernaum”).

Raising the budget of 2.5 million euros ($2.9 million) was “a challenge”, according to one of the co-producers, Nedim Cheikhrouha, who said the project almost collapsed a year ago due to lack of funds.

At the Academy Awards, “The Man Who Sold His Skin” has fewer promotional resources than other contenders, the producers said.

“The Man Who Sold His Skin” was released this week in Tunisia and will screen in the United States from April 2, and in Sweden on April 23.

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