‘The Man Who Sold His Skin’ Is A Sharp Drama: Review

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Since erupting in 2011, Syria’s Civil War has claimed the lives of up to 600,000 people and triggered a refugee crisis of even greater proportions. The Man Who Sold His Skin isn’t a war film, instead using the conflict as a starting point for a drama whose real home is in the European art world.

Since erupting in 2011, Syria’s Civil War has claimed the lives of up to 600,000 people and triggered a refugee crisis of even greater proportions. The Man Who Sold His Skin isn’t a war film, instead using the conflict as a starting point for a drama whose real home is in the European art world.

★★★★

It begins with a young man by the name of Sam (Yahya Mahayni) who flees Syria by smuggling into Lebanon, where he has a chance encounter with the most famous contemporary artist in the world. The artist—Belgian impresario Jeffrey Godefroi (Koen De Bouw)—offers him a deal. “You want my soul?” Sam asks. “I want your back”. The artwork in mind is a giant tattoo of a Schengen visa, and in the process Sam will become a living exhibit.

There’s no hanging around, with director Kaouther Ben Hania ensuring the film zips along at real pace, particularly in the first half. It balances forbidding political undercurrents with a lightness of touch, which owes much to Mahayni’s playful performance. One lasting highlight is brought to life out of inconsequentiality by the actor, who gleefully dances around the spotlights of a mood-lit exhibition hall like a child. As Sam he is angry, yet dignified and sunny, expressing every facet of the contradictions in a refugee’s life.

Godefroi meanwhile is an ambiguous character. He argues that in order for a Syrian refugee to get to Europe legally, he has to be commodified. By tattooing a Schengen visa on Sam’s back and turning him into a piece of artwork to be bought and sold, Godefroi does just that. But in making this artistic statement he is ipso facto guilty of perpetuating the very processes he criticises. He is self-aware and self-deprecating—intelligent, which makes him dangerous. De Bouw plays this conventionally as an artisanal Svengali, or Mephistopheles, as his character knowingly jokes to Sam while the fateful arrangement is proposed.

Deeper in, the momentum slows down but the satire is dialled up to honking levels. A documentary team interviews moneyed buyers of “the artwork”—self-satisfied fat cats pontificating about their status while voyeuristically displaying a human being in a state of modern slavery. The aristocrats are thoroughly mocked in this section, but such cynicism needs some soul too, and the tie that binds it is a love story. In the pre-war prologue, Sam has a partner, Abeer (Dea Liane). With portents of violent revolution on the horizon however, she chooses to wed a foreign office bureaucrat with a posting in Belgium. Indeed, it is this unresolved love that proves to be Sam’s greatest incentive to sell his soul to the devil. Mahayani and Liane have chemistry together, though there’s ultimately more meat in the aforementioned political layerings. The trap that borders place refugees into, commodification, human trafficking, slavery, the bounds of what constitutes art—it’s all touched on, if only in passing.

A joke about racist perceptions toward Arabs even becomes a key plot point, setting up a resolution which is the one divisive aspect of the film. Sam manages to escape his captivity through a Swiss court decision that rules he is in the country illegally, thus can no longer be “displayed” as an exhibit. Abeer reveals she has split up with her husband, and the pair are finally able to reunite. But Sam’s declared intention to return home to Raqqa comes loaded with dark dramatic irony—Raqqa would go on to be ISIL’s short-lived capital. Even with this foreknowledge, his sudden execution is jarring, and a news report that his tattooed skin has been pawned off on the black market concludes on an abruptly minor chord. Or so it seems. The twist is immediately twisted again. Jeffrey and Sam have conspired to dupe everyone—the pawned off skin is a DNA-clone, his execution was staged, and Sam and Abeer are living happily ever after in an undisclosed location.

An upbeat note is the right way to end a film that, for all its satirical bites, has a heart it never shapes up to bleed. The lack of convincement lies only in the execution, and having just written it out, the coda’s pure fantasy is no more tonally compatible than the grim fake-out ending. It’s only a peccadillo though.

The Verdict

Sharp, erudite, and entertaining, The Man Who Sold His Skin delivers on the subtext its set-up entails, spearheaded by Yahya Mahayni’s confident lead performance and Ben Hania’s equally assured direction. There’s only one tragic thread left unresolved. Outside of the West’s bubble, into which Sam goes to such an extreme to escape, Syria’s miserable war toils on. 

Words by Alex Crisp


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