The Man Who Sold His Skin: A Movie About Syrian Refugees’ Suffering

A Story of Civil War, Love and Contemporary Art World
Sam Ali as (Yahya Mahayni), who becomes a work of art, in front of a crowd in a scene from the film. (Supplied)

Imagine a Schengen visa engraved on your back so that you can travel freely as an artwork and not a human? If you are asked by a famous tattoo artist to sell your skin for him to draw on it and became his painting, what will your reaction be? Maybe you will be surprised by the idea, shocked, confused or seeing him insane? Right? But this is not what happened with Sam, the hero of the film, “The Man Who Sold His Skin”.

The movie introduces to us the present world in which wars and tragedies have become material for selling and watching and even the humans have become a commodity.

“The Man Who Sold His Skin” is a dramatic movie, written and directed by the Tunisian Kaouthar Ben Hania, and was nominated for the Oscar this year at its 93rd edition, in the Foreign Film category. It stars the Syrian- Canadian actor Yahya Mahaini, the French actress Dia Elian, the Belgian actor Koen De Bouw and the famous Italian actress Monica Bellucci in her first participation in a film by a female director from the Arab world. The soundtrack of the movie was composed by the outstanding Tunisian artist, Amine Bouhafa.

The movie has won many local and international awards, including awards at the Venice Film Festival and the Mediterranean Film Festival in Bastia, France.

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 capital Tunis, on March 30, 2021. (Supplied)

 STRANGE WARTIME CHOICES

The story traces the journey of an immigrant from Syria who fled his country to Lebanon in fear and escapes from the devastating war and his intention to travel to Europe to reunite with his love. How, for that, he agrees to have a tattoo on his back by a famous artist, turning his body into a canvas for a painting is the core of the story. The film also carries a deeper story of how the protagonist discovers that in the midst of all this, that he has lost the freedom he had always been searching for.

Because love stories do not always end with that beautiful ending of being together and because war can lead people to do things they do not have to do in normal times, the story of the man who sold his skin finds a resonance with viewers.

The film, as stated by the director in an interview, presents and addresses the issue of freedom of movement suffered by Syrian refugees and others who belong to the Third World and who are prevented from traveling, simply because they possess a passport of a particular country. The situation makes any person either agree to any work contract or have to accept any strange offer of its kind, even if he loses his dignity.

Sam Ali (Yahya Mahayni) and Abeer (Dea Liane) sitting in a train in a scene from “The Man Who Sold His Skin”.

PARALLEL ROAD

The story begins in 2011 in Syria during the civil war. The first scene comes as an introduction to the reason for all that will happen in the movie.

The director succeeds from the first scenes of the movie to explain the obstacles that will face the main protagonists. Sam Ali (Yahya Mahayni) and Abeer (Dea Liane) who live in Raqqah in Syria present in their first scene the traditional love story of a girl from a bourgeois family who loves a man whom her family does not accept and is trying to get her married to someone who works at the Syrian embassy in Belgium.

They are shown travelling together in a train and Abeer says that she should not sit very close fearing that someone of her family would see them. Sam leaves her to sit in another seat parallel to her in the train which explains clearly that their road does not take the same direction. Sam asks Abeer to marry him in front of people on the train and says loudly "We are in a time of revolution and we want freedom". This sentence triggers Sam’s arrest by the Syrian authorities.

And from here the journey of struggles begins.

Sam Ali (Yahya Mahayni) back after being engraved with the ‘visa tattoo’ in a scene from “The Man Who Sold His Skin”.

MAGIC CARPET OF FREEDOM

Things are not as they appear and everything happens for a reason, but the reason here is different. Becoming a canvas for painting is something that may be weird for anyone, but for Sam who lost his love and his country it is an opportunity and a path to find his freedom. But unfortunately, sometimes people while struggling for their freedom find out that they are losing their dignity.

Sometimes two contradictory worlds lead to the same result. “The Man Who Sold His Skin” is not only about love and Syrian refugees' sufferings, but also about the world of contemporary art which can be in one way or another a world where people lose their freedom too!

Sam escapes to Lebanon from the Syrian regime and while living there, he accompanies one of his colleagues to go to art galleries to get free food and drink. In one of these visits, he is hunted by Geoffrey Godefroy (Koen de Pau) and his blonde assistant Soraya (the famous Italian actress Monica Bellucci).

Godefroi (Koen De Bouw), who "turns worthless objects into works that cost millions of dollars just by signing them", asks Sam to sell his back and travel to Europe. Sam accepts so that he can see his love, but he discovers that he has become imprisoned in museums like any painting people can come and gawp at.

Abeer (Dea Liane) crying in a scene from “The Man Who Sold His Skin”.

"We live in a very dark era where if you are Syrian, Afghan, Palestinian, and so on, you are persona non grata," the character of the artist Godefroi says in an interview after the work's unveiling, "I just made Sam a commodity, a canvas, so now he can travel around the world. Because in the times we're living in, the circulation of commodities is much freer than the circulation of human beings."

Refugees around the world are facing physical exploitation and racist practices that are inconsistent with human rights principles.

I think that a good movie is the one that summarizes its purpose in a sentence said by its heroes in a dialogue that is much related to the storyline of the movie.

"Art, as we know, is always exploring new unexplored territories," Monica Bellucci as Soraya, the art dealer, tells a reporter asking about the sale of Sam's skin.

Visually, the investment in the worlds of fine art and the spaces of museums and art galleries in the movie is great and the director of photography, Christopher Aoun, has succeeded in extracting images filling with beauty, which add a lot to the movie on the artistic and aesthetic level.

In the end, the director wants to confirm that despite war, terrorism, the greed of the world, exploitation and materialism, we should stick to our humanity.

The man who sold his skin succeeds in mixing the two worlds of war and art, which appear to most people as two extremes - the world of loss and pain and the world of beauty and colors - by tackling important issues like the suffering of refugees and our insistence on not becoming a commodity.