Tunisian director Kaouther Ben Hania’s “The Man Who Sold His Skin,” which recently launched from Venice, combines the absurdity of the contemporary art world, where a man’s skin can truly become a canvas, and the plight of refugees. It’s the tale of a Syrian who accepts to have a large Schengen visa, the document he desperately needs to enter Europe, tattooed on his back by a famous artist, thus becoming a human artwork to be exhibited in a Brussels museum.
The film, which packs a political punch and is also entertaining, is having its Arabic premiere at Egypt’s El Gouna fest. It follows from Ben Hania’s “Beauty and the Dogs,” the drama about the rape of a young Tunisian woman by policemen that made a splash at Cannes in 2017, and put her on the global radar. The director spoke to Variety from El Gouna about casting a relative newcomer, Syrian actor Yahya Mahayni, in the title role, and getting Monica Bellucci to play an icy art world player named Soraya with a blatantly “fake blonde” mane, a look they came up with together. Excerpts from the conversation.
How does it feel to be back in El Gouna where the project for this film won a development prize?
That was two years ago; we were there with the first draft and it was great for us. I came with my producer Nadim Cheikhrouha and in El Gouna we met with our German co-producer Thanassis (Thanassis Karathanos of Twenty Twenty Vision). After the pitch we closed the deal for our collaboration. And now here we are, back with the completed film!
You’ve said Belgian artist Wim Delvoye and his piece “Tim,” tattooed onto the back of a man, provided the initial idea after you saw it at an exhibition. In terms of the story, how did things evolve from there?
I was thinking about making a contrasted movie about two worlds that are very different and I was very interested in the so-called refugee crisis and the way it was being narrated in the European media. I said to myself: ‘If I want to write a movie about this guy sitting in a museum, I have to know him better.’ From there came the idea of making him a refugee. Then came the obvious question: ‘What was his story before becoming a work of art?’
Ultimately it’s Yahya Mahayni’s performance, which won a prize in Venice, that carries the movie. How did you find him?
It was a long casting process. This was obviously the main part, and a particularly challenging main part. I auditioned lots of Syrian actors and he arrived after a while, at a point where I hadn’t really found exactly what I was looking for. Until then I had been hesitating, but right after the audition I thought: ‘That’s him!’ Then we met again, and did some more tests, this time with my producer. When he left, my producer said: ‘I bet you he will win the best actor award at the first festival where we go!’
It’s interesting that alongside relatively unknown actors you got Monica Bellucci. How did you pull that off?
Getting Monica Bellucci was the easiest thing in this movie. That may not sound credible. But we just sent her the script, she read it, saw my previous movie, and said: ‘Yes.’ It was as easy as that.
How did it go that Bellucci went blonde for the film?
I had been thinking about trying to make her go blonde to play Soraya, then Monica called me and told me: ‘I have an idea about the look of the character.’ I generally don’t like it when actors think about this stuff.
Anyway, when we met I brought some photos of her as a blonde, and she told me that she had also thought of that. It was pretty amazing that we were on the same page. We both had this idea not just that she should be blonde, but a blatantly fake blonde. We though this would help underline that to succeed in the world of contemporary art you have to be very cold and strategic, and fake. Monica knows the art world very well. She talked to me about women she knew in this milieu. Gallerists, marketing people. We both drew from that.