The International Feature Film Oscar submissions this year include a rich and accomplished collection of filmmakers whose bold and singular visions are exemplary.
One of the most exciting, Tunisia’s Kaouther Ben Hania, shocked most prognosticators when her beguiling, genre-hybrid gem, The Man Who Sold His Skin, made the Oscar short list among a sea of expected selections. It was one of a few fantastic surprises that proved the nominators actually do watch the submitted films and don’t only pay attention to ads and publicity machines at work.
The Man Who Sold His Skin centers on Sam Ali (Yahya Mahayni), a young man forced to flee Syria because of a social media posting completely taken out of context. While in Lebanon, the refugee is offered a Faustian deal to have his back tattooed by Jeffrey Godefroi (Koen De Bouw), a world renown contemporary artist. Sam’s body literally becomes a precious commodity as he grapples with what it means to be free. A terrific (and blonde) Monica Bellucci is also featured as Soraya, Jeffrey’s methodical assistant.
The film’s premise is based loosely on the director’s recollection of attending a Louvre Museum exhibit where artist Wim Delvoye’s had tattooed the back of Tim Steiner. But from that starting point, Ben Hania’s brilliant script takes over and develops a number of timely themes, continuously raising the stakes in a milieu that is already outrageous and surreal (and a microcosm for our current insane world), careening towards a rather surprising ending.
This is Ben Hania’s second narrative feature. Her first, Beauty and the Dogs, was also submitted by Tunisia for Oscars (in 2017). In that harrowing nail-biter, a young woman is raped by a trio of arrogant policemen and finds it near-impossible to be able to report the crime, let alone hope for justice. The film is a scathing statement about abuse of power and misogyny that is all too relevant right now.
Awards Daily had the privilege of Zooming with Ben Hania, who lives in Paris.
Awards Daily: I love this film.
Kaouther Ben Hania: Thank you, I read your article. You watched over 80 films! That is wonderful.
AD: I got to really explore. I think, too often, journalist make assessments while only seeing a handful of the films and then base predictions on the most popular films or the ones that are heavily promoted. That’s not really fair.
KBH: Exactly. It was quite a surprise for us because we didn’t spend money for a campaign to be shortlisted. You are one of the few who saw it coming. [Laughs] I didn’t even see it coming. I thought to myself, (many) have these huge machines working for them with marketing and PR…We don’t have money. But I think there was very good word of mouth (among) the voters. That’s what I read in Variety. It was a surprise for them, also, to see my movie shortlisted.
AD: You’ve represented Tunisia with two out of their seven submissions and now you’ve made it. Is it exciting?
KBH: Yes! We are not used to this. All this is new for us. My previous movie was presented by Tunisia but it was presented very late—one year after being released in the U.S. so I was like, if you want to present it present it. But now, yes, it’s very exciting!
AD: I know the film was inspired by a real story. Can you tell me about the development of the script and where and how you decided to take the narrative in the direction you took it in?
KBH: The starting point was an exhibition in the Louvre museum in Paris. There was a retrospective about Wim Delvoye, a Belgian artist. There was this guy tattooed by the artist sitting in the Napoleon III Apartments and it was quite shocking for me. It was a very strong image. It stayed with me for quite a long time and haunted me. I was thinking it could be a wonderful starting point for a movie. Who is this guy and why did he do it?
And at the same time I was meeting with a lot with Syrian refugees. So in a very strange way the things mixed together in my head. And then before the shooting of my previous movie, Beauty and the Dogs, I felt like I had to write the story And I wrote the first draft in five days…I had to get this story onto my laptop. And then I’ll see what I do with it. So when we finished promoting Beauty and the Dogs after Cannes and the theatrical release, I went back to the first draft and I started rewriting it, restructuring, doing more research…And I contacted Wim to tell him, ‘I want to write your story, it’s different from your work…Will you allow me to do it?’ He told me, ‘okay, go and do it, but I don’t want to be linked to the project in a direct way.’ I think he was a little bit suspicious…And then we started casting and for the part of Jeffrey Godefroi, the artist, I picked Koen De Bouw, he’s a wonderful actor and he’s a huge star in Belgium. And he wanted to meet Wim Delvoye to prepare so I put them in contact (with one another) and then Wim contacted me saying, ‘I want to be more involved in the movie, it looks wonderful.’ (laughs)
AD: Of course…
KBH: So I told him I had an idea, why don’t you do a cameo in the movie? So he appears in the movie. He’s the insurance guy at the reception…In the end, he was crazy about the movie!
AD: The film explores freedom and its many aspects and contradictions. Was that something you set out to do or did it happen as the process went along?
KBH: …When I started thinking about this guy sitting in a museum, yes the idea of freedom was there but it wasn’t concrete. But when I talked with Syrians, their main obsession was freedom. Because they had an uprising, then war. They were fleeing their country…There was a lot of talk about freedom. And since I’m Tunisian…I’m between two worlds living in France for many years, this question was always in my head. What does it mean to be free in our world today? If you are in a democracy and not under a dictatorship, like my main character, are you really free? So this idea of being free within the system is like an impossibility. Even outside of the movie, it’s impossible to be free because we have machines, credit cards, all this spying on all our movements. And we need all this stuff for our comfort. so we sell our data to have comfort…To be free nowadays means to be out of the system. It’s impossible. So, yeah, this idea of freedom was at some point when I was writing–I don’t know–the third draft of the script it was clear for me that it was the hidden theme of the movie.
AD: You capture the contradictions of the contemporary art world as well as the surreality, but it’s also all done with a reverence as well. For instance, I love that the artist turns out to not be this expected demon.
KBH: I love art. I’m passionate about art. Since I’m a filmmaker it seems normal to be passionate about art…(In the film) I’m talking about the milieu of contemporary art, but it can extend to cinema—that’s a world that I know very well…Contemporary art is very elitist and very chic and you have a lot of money in it. And also there’s this idea that always bothered me when presenting artists in cinema, you have this cliché of the tortured artist, the one who nobody understands, the genius before his time. He’s an alcoholic, struggling with his demons and stuff like that. But when we look around us nowadays, artists are different. They’re marketers, entrepreneurs. When you see somebody like Jeff Koons or Damien Hirst, they don’t have this kind of profile…Art has always been linked with power. Nowadays it’s capitalism. It’s a huge market. And it’s the safest place where you can invest money…You can buy an artist and raise his appraisal, exhibit him at prestigious museums. So you have all this connected. I’m not naïve about the beauty of the art. And that’s why I chose that my character would come from another world that was completely different, a survival world—the world of the refugee. Because I needed this naïve gaze to explore this sacred world. There is something very sacred there. Jeffrey says, “I give meaning.” It’s the new church…People seek meaning in works of art because we all need meaning.
AD: You also bring up this notion of Sam being exploited, but it’s his decision to do what he wants with his body and not have to be some representational victim.
KBH: Yes, it’s his choice but at the same time he doesn’t have much choice. He’s the kind of character who has this dark humor, distance with things. It’s his secret weapon to not be depressed or be the normal victim. So, in the beginning he’s this impulsive guy. He can say ‘I love you’ on the train and then some guy says, ‘I want your back,’ and he says, ‘take my back.’ He’s romantic, passionate, emotional –which is not very suitable to our world today which is cold, more strategic. And he hits this wall of this art world (represented by) Soraya’s character. She’s very cold. She plans everything. And he learns and changes. He takes charge of his destiny.
AD: The multi genre aspect of the film is impressive and with the dark comedy you raise the stakes. It reminded me of satires like Network —
KBH: I love this movie. I love this movie! It’s one of my favorites.
AD: Like that film, it’s blistering satire, but it can actually happen. As we get further into the film, it gets crazier, but still believable. How did you keep the blend between genre and tone?
KBH: It was a huge challenge. To finance this movie was very complicated because of many reasons and many people mention this, how will you manage it? You have a love story. Then you have this political thing. And you want humor. And for me making a movie is like making music. You have tones and you have variation. And you have silence. Then you have an explosion of instruments. I like hybrid things because I think in hybridity you can open new doors and windows and there you can find creativity. So I thought about it like a partition of music. I knew from the beginning that things must be well structured and believable. This is the work of scriptwriting. And then I needed the best actor to embody all this…In the history of cinema there are lots of genre movies…so You can borrow things and use them like cuisine—like cooking.
AD: The visual style of the film–your cinematic choices–were fascinating. The rich colors, the framing, characters in and out of focus—is that something you plotted, shot-wise, beforehand and/or did you make changes onset?
KBH: Both, but mostly before because I had a small budget. I had a lot of visual ambition, but not enough money, so not enough time. I did the usual before shooting, precising every frame and what I wanted exactly. Making storyboards and visual references. Talking about it for days and days with my DOP. It’s like in this famous book by Sidney Lumet, the director of Network, “Making Movies,” talking about the metaphor of the mosaic. When you’re making a movie it’s like you have this tiny stone to paint, it’s like a shot, and nobody understands what you are doing since it’s a tiny stone, but as a filmmaker you should know where to put it, where its place is in the big mosaic. So, when I heard this I thought, Sidney Lumet is right, (I must) prepare every tiny stone because I don’t have time to improvise onset. I have to have my shots done…But there were some things that I changed. For example, the pimple scene. Only the operation on his back was written in the script. There was something missing. I needed the artist in the scene. So we brought the artist in and I wrote the dialogue between them on the same day…But mainly things were prepared before shooting.
AD: I wanted to ask about the Christ-like symbolism in the film…
KBH: Before filming I did a lot of research about the presentation of the body in paintings, in Medieval and Renaissance paintings, which are really linked to the Church. The most represented body in the history of art is the body of Christ. It’s everywhere. And I liked the idea because (it’s) coming from the Middle East. So we have this place having a lot of wars and history and a lot of symbols where people are not in peace—all off this complicated heritage. So it made its way into the visual style of the movie…
AD: Tell me about how Monica Bellucci became part of the project.
KBH: When I was writing the character Soraya, I knew she (had to be) a very beautiful woman from the Mediterranean area…She had to be a fake blonde, to be hiding something. Very strict and very chic. And when I thought chic, I thought of Monica Bellucci because she’s the icon of chic. So we sent the script to her agent like a bottle to the sea. But she had seen my previous movie, Beauty and the Dogs, and she read the script and said yes, automatically. She was one of the first actors (cast). She wanted to work with a good woman director. She was amazing. She’s a wonderful human being and it was such a pleasure to work with her. She had no conditions. She gave me all her trust.
AD: And Yahya Mahayni as Sam Ali, I noticed he doesn’t have many film credits.
KBH: It’s his first feature movie.
AD: Amazing. How did you find him? Auditions?
KBH: Yes, auditions. I did six months of auditions. I needed a very strong actor in this part so I started looking at famous stars in Syria…there was always something missing for the character…I met great actors but they didn’t fit…and one day I received (Yahya’s) self-tape and I felt there was something–He’s a lawyer in real life, not an actor. But lawyers are also actors.
AD: They have to be, right?
KBH: Exactly. But he loves acting and he did some short movies and student movies. And it was obvious for me that he was the perfect person for this part. But because he’s not a professional actor I was scared. Is he serious? Will he be committed? So I wanted to see him and test him. And I was with my producer. When he left my producer said when the film premieres—we hope in a big festival—he will receive the Best Actor Award. And this is what happened. We were at the Venice Film Festival and he received the Best Actor Award, which was amazing!
One day Monica asked me who the lead actor was. I told her he’s a great guy and a lawyer. She said, “What? You’re not serious? [Laughs] It’s a complicated part! You need an actor!” …I told her to please trust me. You will see. He’s wonderful. So I set up a meeting between them and she loved him. He speaks Italian also so it was wonderful. She thought he was just perfect for the part.
AD: This year’s International Feature Film Oscar submissions included 33 films directed by women. Do you think we’re finally moving towards a kind of parity?
KBH: Uh…maybe? I hope so. I think it’s good. It can be better. It’s not easy. I can tell you about my experience being not only a woman, but a woman of color coming from a Muslim/Arabic background, African background…When I wanted to do The Man Who Sold His Skin, I had a lot of complications convincing financers. For them I had no legitimacy to do a movie about contemporary art, when you see my profile. I heard stuff like, ‘we don’t expect this from you.’ Because my previous movie was about a Tunisian girl who was raped by policemen. It was like setting a tone for what is expected…So I think for women, we need to be trusted a little bit more. Because I’m sure if I had another profile nobody would talk about my legitimacy to speak to these topics…We should have the possibility of doing whatever movie. Doing a movie is always complicated, always a struggle. But I think that there is something changing in a way that people trust more women. But I know it’s not completely there. Pre-judgements are strong. We all have them. To change them is a very long road.
AD: Do you have your next film ready?
KBH: Yes. (In) lockdown I wrote so many projects. I have a movie I would love to do. It’s very expensive. I’m thinking about the journey it will take to finance it. It’s very ambitious. It’s a costume movie set in North Africa. You know In the Name of the Rose?
AD: Yes, with Sean Connery.
KBH: Yes. It’s kind of like In the Name of the Rose but with a Muslim background, not Christian. Something forbidden. It’s about a lost movie, everybody wants to find–to burn it. Or to have it. So yes, I have this crazy project.
AD: Who are your cinematic heroes?
KBH: I grew up in a very tiny town in Tunisia, not even the capital. There was no cinema. I’m VHS generation. We rented VHS. And mainly what was available was Bollywood movies…I found this amazing. I was a pre-teenager. But I never thought these movies were talking about me. And one day I went to the video clerk and said I watched all the Indian movies; you don’t have anything else? He said there’s this American horror movie. And I said yes! It was Carrie by Brian DePalma. I didn’t know who Brian DePalma was at the time. So I watched the movie and it was something very strange—it’s not the best Brian DePalma movie—but for me it was something because she’s a teenager, she just got her period, she’s bullied by her friend in high school—it was almost talking about me! She lived in a small city in the U.S. She had a strict mother. I was realizing, oh my god, cinema can talk about stuff (relatable to) me—a girl like me. It was a shift in my mind. So this is how it started, thinking that you can identify with heroes in movies. With Carrie!
AD: If The Man Who Sold His Skin does get nominated for an Oscar, what would that mean to you?
KBH: It would be historic. You said it yourself (in your article). It’s a gem that people could have missed. But voters, since they are cinephiles and curious, they didn’t miss it. They watched it and they voted for it, which is huge, because we didn’t have money to campaign. When I understood how things worked, it was crazy. I said, what? These huge amounts to pay for ads and stuff. If I had this money, I’d do another short movie or documentary, not give it to ads! Since we didn’t have money, we didn’t do campaigns. And the movie was shortlisted! So there’s hope!
If we make it to the list, it would be historic for Tunisia. It’s a tiny country. We’ve started thinking about art and doing great movies. There were movies before, but we were under a dictatorship. Now, it’s the only democracy in the region so I can do my movies and other people from my generation can, because of the democracy and freedom of speech. A film like Beauty and the Dogs was impossible to do under a dictatorship. So it would be historic to be nominated.
Samuel Goldwyn Films just acquired The Man Who Sold His Skin for U.S. distribution.