Oscar-nominated film that examines freedom and identity is a first for Tunisia

When Tunisian writer-director Kaouther Ben Hania first saw a retrospective of Belgian artist Wim Delvoye at the Louvre in 2012, it sparked many ideas in her head. She was especially inspired by one of the exhibits, a live shirtless man whose back was tattooed by the artist.

“It was quite a controversial piece, and this daring image stayed with me,” Ben Hania says during a recent Zoom interview from Paris. “I thought it was a good starting point for me to explore issues of identity, art and freedom. I asked myself, ‘What if this person had been a Syrian refugee and had to make this Faustian bargain to live in Europe?’”

More than eight years later, the result of Ben Hania’s musings is the Oscar-nominated feature “The Man Who Sold His Skin,” which tells the story of a Syrian refugee (portrayed by newcomer Yahya Mahayni) whose body becomes a precious art piece. Last week’s nomination of the film, which also stars Italian actress Monica Bellucci and Belgian actor Koen De Bouw, in the international feature category is a first for Tunisia.

The director says that while researching her movie, she was struck by how different behind-the-scenes players work together to raise the price of an artist. “It is almost a cliché in cinema to portray artists as misunderstood and tortured souls like Van Gogh who live in the margins of society,” says Ben Hania. “But art and power have always been linked throughout history.”

One of the film’s secret weapons is the resonant performance by Mahayni, who won the best actor prize at the Venice Film Festival last year. Ben Hania says it was important for her to cast a Syrian actor in the role. “We did an online casting call and asked for taped auditions from Syrians from all over the world,” she recalls. “I wasn’t having any luck at first, but one day I received Yahya’s audition, and I knew it was him. He was perfect, even though he’s not a professional actor and is, in fact, a lawyer. I guess the two jobs aren’t that different!”

The movie, which cost about $2.5 million to make, was shot in Tunis, Marseille and Brussels in 32 days. “I am used to working with small budgets, but financing the movie felt like solving a Chinese puzzle,” says Ben Hania. Audiences may be surprised to learn that one of the film’s key settings — the fine-arts museum in Brussels — was actually shot in Tunisia.

“We had to make it look like the museum, but we shot it in an old abandoned building in a small village with sheep roaming outside,” she says. “It was a challenge to make it look like a prestigious art place. But that’s the magic of cinema. Conceiving the artwork in the movie also gave me a lot of pleasure, but it was also very stressful.”

Ben Hania was both thrilled and surprised to find out that her movie is a contender in the Oscar race this year. “It’s the first nomination for Tunisia, and I’m representing Africa and all the Arab countries, so I feel a huge responsibility. I am very hopeful and can see that things are changing for the better. It’s common today to hear the speeches about diversity in the media and the new opportunities for women and people of color, but when it comes down to financing and money, people still question your abilities. So you have to work twice as hard with a smaller budget.”

Ben Hania grew up in Sidi Bouzid, a small town in the center of Tunisia. Her love for cinema began with Egyptian melodramas and Bollywood films. “I loved the spectacular colors and the joy in these Bollywood movies, which I used to enjoy on VHS tape,” she recalls. “They felt like heaven to me. Then one day, the store didn’t have any videos that I hadn’t seen before, so the clerk told me I should rent Brian De Palma’s ‘Carrie.’ I was surprised, because I could really relate to the main character — not the supernatural elements, of course — but because she was my age and was living in this small town with a very religious mother. It sparked something in me, and after that, I started to watch all the movies by De Palma, Scorsese, Coppola and that whole generation of filmmakers.”

Although she has been living in Paris for the last 12 years, Ben Hania is very proud of the thriving community of female filmmakers in her country. “We are a small community, but Tunisia is a small country. When I look around me, I am proud of the female representation,” she says. “When I found out that film was nominated for an Academy Award, it seemed crazy to me, since the Oscar always seemed so far away and out of reach. I am so happy to offer this good news to Tunisia, because times are very hard there, and many people are very depressed.”

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