These were just some of the words used by reviewers to describe Kaouther Ben Hania’s third feature film titled The Man Who Sold His Skin when it premiered at the 77th Venice Film Festival this past September.
In a nearly miraculous twist of fate, the film is now one of the 15 projects shortlisted for Best International Feature Film at the 93rd Academy Awards to be held on April 25th. And Inshallah, fingers crossed, the Tunisian submission to the Oscar race shall make it through to the next round and all the way to the awards ceremony—actual red carpet and all.
It may not seem that way, but miracles are happening every day despite our present uncertainty.
Now, don’t misunderstand me, Ben Hania’s wondrous film deserves to be nominated—with all its beautifully crafted frames, exploration of contemporary themes, and groundbreaking message all told with careful artistry and a healthy dose of irony. However, the process of getting that nomination often involves lots of money and big production companies, having little to do with the actual worth of a film. But this year, one of the phenomenons to rise out of the ashes of this pandemic has been the completely democratic way in which films have been viewed and showcased, and thus selected for awards. After winning the Orizzonti Best Actor award in Venice for newcomer Yahya Mahayni who stars in the film as Sam, word of mouth carried Ben Hania’s film on its wings and now it can fairly compete on its own worth—not as a result of how many parties are thrown in its honor and what cool Hollywood screening venues her producers can afford.
It’s a game-changer for cinema, particularly world cinema, and if we’re to be a bit controversial, particularly for films made by women.
The Man Who Sold His Skin tells the story of a Syrian refugee, Sam who is offered a Faustian bargain by one slick European artist—his artwork tattooed on Sam’s back in exchange for a chance at freedom in the West. It’s a deal he can’t refuse even if it won’t turn out quite the way he expected. Or any of us watching the film can actually predict, as Ben Hania’s greatest talent lies in her ability to surprise her audience, every step of the way. Nothing moves according to a formula, The Man Who Sold HIs Skin is unconventional, entertaining and wonderfully cool. Oh, and it features Monica Bellucci as a blonde!
Flaunt caught up with Kaouther Ben Hania to talk about how she fell in love with fashion, the friendship she developed with the late Azzedine Alaïa, and why she choose to make Bellucci a blonde in her groundbreaking film.
The question on everyone's mind is how did you come to cast Monica Bellucci?
I was thinking about this character, Soraya, she’s an art gallery owner, and I told myself, “I want to have this kind of beautiful, glamorous woman.” And when I say glamorous, to myself, I immediately think of Monica Bellucci. Since I didn’t have any contact with her, we sent the script to her agent—like a message bottle to the sea. But she had seen my previous film Beauty and the Dogs and she read the script and said yes immediately! It was just wonderful. We met, and she’s a great woman. I mean the character in my movie is so cold and pretentious, strategic with a lot of glacial emotions which is really very different from Monica who is a very warm person, very sensitive and intelligent.
We laughed a lot in preparation talking about her character and thought it would be great if she could be a fake blonde because she’s so fake in it, and Soraya is hiding something—she wants to be blonde to have this kind of icy cold appearance. But she is a fake blonde and it was amazing, because with our producers—especially my male producers—they were shocked by this artistic choice. For them, it was sacrilegious to transform the most beautiful brunette into a blonde woman. But I insisted, it was for the character, you know, how I thought about the character, and I had to convince them about the choice of the color of the hair of one of my characters. It was a great collaboration at the end.
I read that the idea is based on something which happened in real life. Can you talk about how it became personal for you?
The idea isn’t based on a real life story but on a work of art. There was this artwork by Wim Delvoye, which I saw in the Louvre, of this man sitting with this tattoo on his back. The starting point was this image, of a man sitting in a museum and I thought that I would have to create a story around this man—not the real story, because I wanted to give it something personal. Something about my preoccupation of the moment and what I was thinking about. That’s how the refugee story came in. It became personal in that way, I took this image, and I tried to tell a very personal story, my story of how this guy accepted this deal and came to be exhibited in a museum, and I invented a fictional story. It was the accumulation of many many things that nourished this starting point, this image.
What was it like to explore the “underbelly” of the art world? How deep did you go into it yourself?
It was exciting! One of the joys of this job, writing and making movies, is to explore—because I’m explorer in the soul. I want to explore the structure, how different worlds work. So the art world is so rich and so passionate that I did a lot of research to understand it in a deep way, you know. Besides going to art galleries and going to exhibitions, I was at auctions also. And besides all this, I read a lot of books… But before all this, I’m myself a huge fan of art since you have very weird and interesting ideas within the contemporary art world. I was really interested in this domain. It was the same thing with my previous movie, although less glamorous since Beauty and the Dogs was about police and their establishment, how they function, and their codes. I did the same thing almost in this more vast and more rich world of art. Every domain is rich, but this is what I like the most in my work, to explore an establishment, explore the codes and the language, the aesthetics and visual side of this establishment.
You’ve always been a fashionista. I write this and think of one specific wonderful red dress you wore in Cannes a few years ago. How important is fashion to you?
Like all girls, I like dresses, and I’ll tell you an anecdote from my childhood. I never thought about doing cinema when I was young, as I come from a very small town in the south of Tunisia and cinema was so far away from my wildest dreams! In our city we had a “couturier” a woman with a sewing machine making fashion for weddings, etc. When I was a young girl I saw her work and was really fascinated by the process—taking a fabric, a really banal piece of fabric and transforming it into a beautiful dress. So I told myself then, “when I’ll be a grownup I’ll do this job.” But you know cinema is not very different—it’s more complicated, but it’s almost like taking a rough material and transforming it into a story, a unified universe. And in Cannes I think you’re talking about my red Alaïa dress, and I was really happy to wear it for the photo call.
Speaking of Alaïa how did the collaboration for the clothing of your two leading ladies, Bellucci and Dea Liane, in the film come to be?
I love [Azzedine] Alaïa, I’m fond of creative people, and he’s Tunisian, you know. He’s one of my role models of someone who transcended his cultural background to do this wonderful work of art, designing beautiful clothes and becoming an international brand. I was in contact with Alaïa since my previous movie—I needed a dress for the Cannes Film Festival in 2017 and I met him and we had such a wonderful dinner together. He was such an inspiring man and then he died suddenly. It was such a sad moment for me, as I felt I lost a father or a role model figure. But I had a strong connection with the Maison and Monica Bellucci also loves Alaïa and I thought it would be a great idea if I could get them involved in the movie. With my costume designer we visited the atelier and we had this possibility to choose dresses for my actresses. It was just wonderful and fulfilling to have their partnership in this movie.
The artwork in the film, who designed the tattoo, who drew it on Yahya’s back, and how long did it take each time to do that on set?
For the tattoo, the design took a lot of time. I wanted to make something that looks like a Schengen Visa but with modifications. To make it fit with the back of a human being. I started drawing and gave my ideas to our graphic designer Benoit Musereau, he did a great job, and then on the set we had a make up artist, her name is Florence Depestele with the help of two other make up artists to put the tattoo on the back of Yahya, it was a very complicated process. Every time it took three hours to do and he had to be there early to have this long make up process on his back.
Of course, we can’t talk about Kaouther Ben Hania without saying these three words: Arab, woman, filmmaker. I apologize in advance, but as you know, they are part of your heritage—and they wouldn’t be if you were an “American male filmmaker”—you would just be a filmmaker. The exceptional thing about your film is that if I watched it, without knowing anything about you, I would assume it was a male filmmaker directing it! How do you reconcile your broad vision and ideas with the small box everyone tries to place you in, “woman from the MENA Region” filmmaker?
This is so sweet [she gushes]. Personally, I believe that storytelling is not gender related. And since I’m not naive, I do know that it becomes about gender, skin color, and cultural background when you are financing a movie. Because giving you money to make a movie is such a risk, so people can come up with all the good reasons to say no. For financing this film, which as you say could have been a film made by a man, I faced a lot of prejudgment—like I’m not only Arab, I’m also African, I come from this North African, Muslim, Arab background, I’m a woman—so I have the entire package of some expectation of that box where people who finance cinema think I belong. I heard sentences like “it’s not what we expect from you,” or “it’s too international for you,” and even “what is your legitimacy to talk about contemporary art, do you really know about this? Because Tunisia isn’t known for having a contemporary art world…” You know, things like this which reduce you to this small box, and when I started writing this story, I never thought of these issues. It’s only in the financing process that the issue of trust came up. Am I trustworthy? It was a very complicated journey to finance this movie.
As a woman director, with all the other things I mentioned, you have to work double, to convince double, you have to fight double and you have to prove yourself double. It was a hard journey. It became a personal goal to prove to people who didn’t want to give me money that they were wrong. It’s crazy, because if I’d had another “profile” I wouldn’t feel this pressure to prove things. Things are changing but the shift is very slow. Yet it’s coming, I think.
Finally, what would you like your audience to take away from the film?
It’s a hard question, because you can’t impose anything on an audience. When I make a movie, my first obsession is the audience, because I’m not making movies for my family or my friends. I’m doing movies for everybody, so I want the audience to be engaged in the story. But I can’t tell them what to think since audiences are so diverse. My hope is that they identify with the character and understand his feelings and when they finish the movie they have another insight and another understanding of life. This is what I hope.
The Man Who Sold His Skin has been acquired by Samuel Goldwyn Film for upcoming U.S. distribution.