Tunisian filmmaker Kaouther Ben Hania’s movie is about a man lending his body as a canvas to an artist
In a world where commodities can more easily cross national boundaries than people, Sam Ali, fleeing a civil war in Syria and persecution by the authorities, turns himself into a commodity. An art commodity to be specific, lending his body as a canvas to a celebrity artist.
Tunisian filmmaker Kaouther Ben Hania borrows the idea for her film The Man Who Sold His Skin, screened in the World Cinema category at the 25th International Film Festival of Kerala (IFFK), from Belgian artist Wim Delvoye, who created an artwork on the back of a man named Tim, who was later auctioned to a collector. But, to this basic thread, she weaves in a host of others, including the refugee crisis caused by the situation in Syria, the commodification in the art world and the prejudices that westerners hold about those from the Middle East.
The artist tattoos a large Schengen visa (which allows seamless travel within Europe) on Sam’s back, making a statement on how national borders stop only human beings. But, Sam is in for another kind of bondage in mega galleries, where he is treated as an inanimate art object. The artist’s loud statements about the work ring hollow when Sam’s individuality is suppressed for the sake of the piece of art that he has become.
Parallel to this goes Sam’s attempts to get in touch with his girlfriend Abeer, who was forced to get married to a wealthy man settled in Europe, after Sam had fled the country. Sam seems to have an awareness of his body canvas not being a coveted job, as he hides the fact from Abeer. An organisation for Syrian refugees takes up his cause, against him being used as a living artwork, but Sam is not so keen on being aided by them.
The film raises some valid questions about the concepts of anything becoming an artwork, and artworks or even sports players becoming commodities to be auctioned off, to be bought by the highest bidder. The price of the art work then adds to the hype around it, rather than discussions on its politics or its beauty. The Man Who Sold His Skin is thus a critical conversation between two media of expression — cinema and installation art.
The refugees from war-torn countries — where continued western interventions are one of the major causes of instability — being unable to enter these same countries that perpetrate these acts, is another uncomfortable question the film raises.