The Man Who Sold His Skin, 2020.
Directed by Kaouther Ben Haria.
Starring Yahya Mahayni, Dea Liane, Koen De Bouw, Monica Bellucci, Saad Lostan and Darina Al Joundi.
Sam Ali (Yahya Mahayna) is presented with a unique proposition in this divisive character piece, which skates the line between contemporary commentary and traditional love story.
This Oscar nominated international picture has much to say about human rights violations and the art of objectification. Written and directed by Kaouther Ben Haria, The Man Who Sold His Skin is essentially a love story with political overtones and one very human canvas. Taking inspiration from real events, this Tunisian writer director openly mocks the Western obsession with slapping dollar signs on everything, whilst getting beneath the skin of more contentious issues.
Yahya Mahayni’s Sam Ali is a man with literally millions of dollars on his back. A personification of creative perfection to some, or a symbol of cultural oppression to another, there are multiple ways to take this movie. By trading his back to escape the authorities, Sam is stripped of his humanity and becomes nothing more than another commodity for consumption. Having been detained for expressing his undying love to Dea Liane’s Abeer, his journey from fugitive to collectors piece is an intriguing one.
Having stumbled into an art gallery and encountered impresario Jeffrey Godefroi, Sam Ali becomes part of an elite group. A group in which money no longer has value, but instead a place where wealth is measured by a desire to break artistic taboos. Koen De Bouw personifies this in his characterisation, imbuing his artist with a world-weary wisdom, that remains impossible to resist. Art is his everything, boundaries are meaningless, while Sam Ali merely represents another means of self-expression.
There is a palpable irony inherent to the narrative conceit of having an immigrant with an exit visa on his back. Brazen in its disregard for propriety, bold in its allusions to human trafficking and yet uplifting enough to celebrate our ability to overcome adversity. That being said, there is a real sense of grounded reality which is retained beyond the more abstract themes at play.
It comes through in the clandestine Skype calls between Sam Ali and Abeer, where moments of tenderness are highlighted through frozen images and garbled voices. Elsewhere it comes through in conversations between Sam Ali and his mother, as assumptions are made, accusations levelled and familial concerns brought home.
In a very true sense this film explores the relationship between artists and their artwork. Whether that is measured in abstract terms, or in this case, a level of control which feels uncomfortable to witness at times. In fact, come those end credits, it might plausible to suggest that Jeffrey Godefroi has experienced a creative epiphany, stumbling upon a new level of respect for form and function in the process.
Whatever the driving force behind The Man Who Sold His Skin, there is no denying the impact Kaouther Ben Haria has made with this feature film. Touching, traumatic and transformative in equal measure, there is something powerful here that demands a wide audience.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★