Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

The Man Who Sold His Skin: A Feminine Punch with a Silk Glove

man who sold his skin
Tunisian director and screenwriter Kaouther Ben Henia and Syrian actor Yahya Mahayni pose in front of the poster of “The man who sold his skin” after its first screening in the country, in the capital Tunis, on March 30, 2021. The Tunisian film, the first ever to be tipped for an Oscar, features in the Best Foreign Language Oscar at the upcoming 93rd Academy Awards in Hollywood on April 25. Starring Italian actress Monica Bellucci alongside Syrian Yahya Mahyani and Belgian Koen De Bouw, it tells the story of a Syrian refugee who allows a tattoo artist to use his back as a canvas in order to get to Europe. FETHI BELAID / AFP

Hakim Marzouki

Since its release in the local and foreign movie theatres, The Man Who Sold His Skin has gained remarkable success. Directed by the Tunisian Kaouther Bin Hania, the movie has all the elements needed to satisfy both the elite and the public. In addition to the intelligent production of the film, it presented a fresh, funny and painful idea that still occupies the world and touches the human conscience.

The film was nominated for the Oscars, travelled to more than twenty European and North American countries, and won many awards. Its story overlaps with more than one current issue. Without fabricating or searching for abnormal narratives, the story is exciting and extremely sensitive. Despite being selective, it maintains its brilliance. It focuses on the nature of cinema that does not care about the ordinary. Instead, it focuses on the context that touches amusement, epic and unexpectedness.

In the film, the young Syrian Sam Ali flees to the Lebanese capital Beirut. Sam escapes from the wars and conflicts in his country. He waits for the opportunity to immigrate to Europe to join his Belgian girlfriend. Up to this point, the story seems more than expected. For us, such a story is told almost tens of times on the news every evening. It comes within a daily scene in which staying in Syria becomes weird. Staying in that country would be an adventure with undesirable consequences.

However, Ben Hania has chosen a Syrian young man with a high artistic and cultural taste. That man used to attend art exhibitions. He dreamed of joining his beloved one in Belgium. Ben Hania, who also wrote the film, did not choose an adventurous young man that accepts taking risks in dilapidated boats to reach the other shore at any cost. Such a plot would be part of a daily drama that occurs on the southern shores of the Mediterranean. Such an idea was consumed frequently by Tunisian moviemakers in what is known as the Harga films. This kind of film deals with clandestine immigration.

Sam Ali, a handsome and muscular young man, accepts an offer from a famous artist named Jeffrey Godefroi to travel to Europe. During an art exhibition on contemporary art, Jeffrey asks Sam to draw a tattoo of a European Schengen visa on his back as a live painting in exchange for getting one that allows him to travel to Europe.

The artistic and dramatic dilemma begins with this offer, which may not seem disreputable at the beginning. The art audience has previously seen many tattooed bodies from different cultures. Interestingly, renting backs and using them for commercial posters is popular in Damascus through advertising companies. However, renting a back in exchange for obtaining a visa to Europe raises questions.

The tattoo allowed the young man to enter Europe for a specific period in exchange for hours spent sitting in museums to display his back. Soon, this turned into a nightmare. Sam belatedly realized that he had lost his freedom again. Due to the decision that he made, treating him as a commodity was not abnormal.

Is it similar to prostitution markets and selling human bodies? Does it have a more complex dimension than having Arab or European smiles and laughter in the exhibition halls?

Is it easier and more face-saving to seek clandestine immigration that often ends with tragedies than this cruel exhibiting adventure? Such an adventure is similar to the one written by Saadallah Wannous about Mamluk Jaber.

The film did point out how the painting tattoo got wide fame. It showed how it aroused the curiosity of art dealers, with its price reaching unbelievable sums in art market auctions amid the growing discontent of human rights activists. But who is guilty of that? And what is the solution? Was the Syrian young man to abandon accepting the idea to be devoured by poverty and marginalization in Beirut, or should he accept this foolish fate amid an international silence that did not change his reality by the various international appeals and calls for help?

The Man Who Sold His Skin is not a kind of self-flagellation, as its critics claim. Instead, it bears witness to a human reality that is bitterer – perhaps – than the refugee camps in different parts of Europe. It is the punch that Kaouther Ben Hania directed in the face of the artistic and financial circles in Europe, but with a silk glove.

This film is a feature-length work co-produced by Tunisia (Cinétéléfilms and Tanit Films), France, Germany, Belgium, and Sweden. It brings together prominent international names, including Yahya Mahayni (Syrian residing in Canada), the French Dea Liane, the Belgian Koen de Bouw and the Italian Monica Bellucci.

The film’s distinction is apparent in pictures, editing, and acting performance, enabling it to compete with the big names in a remarkable Arab cinematic precedent.

Director Kaouther Ben Hania said on her Facebook page, “Yes, we did it. We made it to the shortlist for Oscar 2021. Thanks to all who loved The Man Who Sold His Skin.” A malicious question may arise here: Did the director, with this co-production, do what the owner of the gallery and her partners did when she invested in Sam Ali’s back to gain fame and money?


The opinions expressed in this publication are those of our bloggers. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of Fanack or its Board of Editors.

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