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VENICE 2020 Orizzonti

Kaouther Ben Hania • Director of The Man Who Sold His Skin

"What does it mean to be free?"

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- VENICE 2020: Tunisian filmmaker Kaouther Ben Hania talks about her astonishing work The Man Who Sold His Skin, a European production unveiled in the Orizzonti line-up

Kaouther Ben Hania • Director of The Man Who Sold His Skin
(© La Biennale di Venezia / ASAC / Giorgio Zucchiatti)

The Man Who Sold His Skin [+see also:
film review
trailer
interview: Kaouther Ben Hania
film profile
]
is Kaouther Ben Hania’s 4th feature film after Challat of Tunis [+see also:
trailer
interview: Kaouther Ben Hania
film profile
]
(ACID - Cannes 2015), Zaineb Hates the Snow [+see also:
trailer
film profile
]
(out of competition - Locarno 2016) and Beauty and the Dogs [+see also:
film review
trailer
interview: Kaouther Ben Hania
film profile
]
(Un Certain Regard  - Cannes 2017). Starring Yahya Mahayni, Monica Bellucci, Dea Liane and Koen de Bouw in its cast, the movie was unveiled in the Orizzonti section of the 77th Venice International Film Festival.

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Cineuropa: How did the idea for this film come about, having first been inspired by the living work of art Tim Steiner, The Tattooed Man?
Kaouther Ben Hania: It came out of several subjects which puzzle and fascinate me. The first idea came to me when I discovered Wim Delvoye’s work. But I took a few liberties in terms of this original inspiration because I wanted to lend human form to this tattooed character, give him an identity, use it as a starting point to provide a political dimension. And given that, at the time, I was very interested in the fate of refugees, Syrians in particular, that was the identity I chose for him. I tried to imagine his inner journey, why he would do what he does and how he would react in his new position as an artwork.

In these two worlds – the contemporary art world which represents ultimate luxury, of sorts, and that of refugees which consists more of sheer survival – the same question of freedom resounds.
This notion of freedom is ultimately the subject of the film. The two worlds are diametrically opposed in this regard. What I wanted to explore is: What does it mean to be free? Geopolitical and socio-political contexts already determine our freedom of movement and even our freedom to do what we want.

Is the Schengen visa tattooed onto Sam’s back part of a Faustian pact?
The character of Jeffrey speaks to that of Mephistopheles. But instead of asking Sam for his soul, he asks for his back. And then he sarcastically, and even a bit cynically, explains that being transformed into a form of merchandise will allow Sam to live more freely. Because we live in a world where goods move around a lot faster than certain human beings. In this sense, Jeffrey is issuing a challenge to art market players. For his part, Sam knows that he has obtained freedom of movement, the right paperwork, a visa, everything he needs, but he also knows he’s lost something. He pays a price: the price of becoming an object, being sold, exhibited and becoming a market asset. It asks this question of the pact: what do we lose in exchange for this freedom offered from up high? Sam’s entire quest will consist of finding real freedom.

The same question for love, which drives Sam’s decisions.
He wants to find the girl he loves, knowing that it’s an extremely complication situation because she’s married. It’s his driving force, and he even goes to prison at the beginning of the film because of a declaration of love he makes, speaking of freedom and revolution under a dictatorship. It sums up his passion, his desire and what he has to pay in order to reach his goal. The entire film is a reflection of this. When he decides to rouse himself from his inertia in Beirut to go and find her, and to agree, with that purpose in mind, to get his back tattooed, it’s quite a harsh kind of freedom that he obtains, because he’s not someone who calculates or strategizes; he’s spontaneous and impulsive. So there’s a risk he’ll end up paying the price for it, because these days you have to be calculating and a strategist. All of Sam’s decisions at the beginning of the film are the result of an entirely irrational emotional impulse, but little by little, he learns to become a strategist so as to escape this trap.

How familiar are you with the codes of the contemporary art world?
Beyond the standard research work of going to see exhibitions, following industry news, attending auctions, understanding the market and its players, I found that the idea of introducing someone who didn’t know anything about this world, like my main character, someone with a naive, outsider’s perspective, would give us a completely different view of this world: an uneducated point of view on a contemporary art world which can appear ultra-elitist, sacred even. Because art in general is, in some sense, religion’s successor. As Jeffrey says himself at one point, "people are looking for meaning and I sell meaning".

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(Translated from French)

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