“Storytelling is a vehicle for empathy,” proclaims Tunisian director Kaouther Ben Hania about her Venice Film Festival award-winning film “The Man Who Sold His Skin.” “It’s the dream of any filmmaker to have this empathy for a character.” Watch our exclusive video interview with Ben Hania above.
In “The Man Who Sold His Skin,” Sam (Yahya Mahayni), a Syrian refugee desperate to get to Europe to rescue his fiancée, agrees to being tattooed, selling off his body as a living work of art to be exhibited in a museum. He soon realizes that he has sold away more than just his skin. The film co-stars acclaimed Italian actress Monica Bellucci and Belgian actor Koen De Bouw and won Syrian-born leading man Mahayni the Best Actor prize at the Venice Film Festival last fall.
“This is not a classic refugee story. We don’t have the boat and the sinking and what we usually see,” Ben Hania explains about her desire to strip away the cliches we often see about refugees by focusing on a man and his unconventional journey towards a better life. “In mass media we always present refugees as statistics or numbers. They are not human beings with specific stories. Cinema gives us this possibility to be close to a human being and through this human being to understand what it is to be a refugee.”
This is the seventh time that a Tunisian film has been submitted for Oscar consideration in what is now called Best International Feature and the second time that Ben Hania has been chosen to represent the North African nation as its official Oscar submission. Now that “The Man Who Sold His Skin” is one of 15 that the motion picture academy recently included on its shortlist out of 93 eligible features from all over the world, Ben Hania is once again in the conversation as a potential Oscar nominee. When the Oscar nominations are officially unveiled on March 15, if “The Man Who Sold His Skin” claims one of the five slots in the Best International Feature category, Ben Hania will have the distinction of being the first from her country to do so.
It would also be a rare film from the African continent to make its mark at the Oscars, where only 9 previous films have been nominated (five from Algeria, two from South Africa and one each from Ivory Coast and Mauritania), with only three winners to date: the Algerian film “Z” in 1969, the Ivorian film “Black and White in Color” in 1976 and the South African film “Tsotsi” in 2005. This year, only Ben Hania and Philippe Lacôte’s Ivorian film “Night of the Kings” made the shortlist and so remain in the running for that honor.
Ben Hania admits that she hopes she can make history by helming the first Tunisian film to be nominated at the Oscars. “In North Africa, we don’t have a big tradition in cinema,” she explains. “Here, it’s more like auteur cinema and things are changing politically in a very speedy way, especially in Tunisia as a young democracy. We are experimenting with the joy of freedom of speech so it gives us directors the possibility to make movies without censorship,” she says. “There’s something happening in the creative scene in Tunisia. Since the revolution, politically and with the change of regime, we now need a cultural revolution to express ourselves. It’s very exciting!”
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