‘The Man Who Sold His Skin’ movie review: raising pertinent questions about ‘art commodity’

The film by the Tunisian filmmaker Kaouther Ben Hania is about a man who lends his body as a canvas to an artist

In a world where goods can cross national borders more easily than humans can, Sam Ali, fleeing civil war in Syria and persecution by the authorities, turns himself into a commodity. An art item to be specific, lending its body as a canvas to a famous artist.

Tunisian filmmaker Kaouther Ben Hania borrows the idea for her film The man who sold his skin, screened in the World Cinema category at the 25th Kerala International Film Festival (IFFK), by Belgian artist Wim Delvoye, who created a work of art on the back of a man named Tim, which was later auctioned to a collector. But she weaves into this basic thread in a host of others, including the refugee crisis caused by the situation in Syria, the commodification in the art world, and the prejudices Westerners have about those from the Middle East.

The artist tattoos a large Schengen visa (which allows seamless travel within Europe) on the back of Sam and makes a statement about how national borders only hold people back. But Sam represents a different kind of bondage in mega galleries, where he is treated like an inanimate art object. The artist’s loud statements about the work sound hollow when Sam’s individuality is suppressed for the sake of the work of art he has become.

Parallel wires

Parallel to this are Sam’s attempts to get in touch with his girlfriend Abeer, who was forced to marry a rich man who settled in Europe after Sam fled the country. Sam seems to be aware that his body towel is not a coveted job as he hides the fact from Abeer. An organization for Syrian refugees is committed not to use it as a living work of art, but Sam is reluctant to be helped by them.

The film raises some valid questions about the concepts that everything becomes a work of art, and that works of art or even athletes become commodities that must be auctioned, in order to be bought by the highest bidder. The price of the artwork then adds to the hype surrounding it, rather than discussions of politics or its beauty. The man who sold his skin is thus a critical conversation between two expression media – film and installation art.

The refugees from war-torn countries – where continuous Western intervention is one of the main causes of instability – unable to enter the same countries that commit these acts is another uncomfortable question raised by the film.

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