Tunisian director Kaouther Ben Hania’s films have screened at prestigious festivals including Cannes, Locarno, IDFA, and Hot Docs. Her film “Beauty and the Dogs” premiered in the “Un Certain Regard” section at Cannes, and represented Tunisia’s entry for the Best Foreign Language Film category — now known as Best International Feature — at the 91st Academy Awards.
“The Man Who Sold His Skin” is Tunisia’s submission to the Best International Feature Film category at the 2021 Academy Awards. It is virtually screening via the California Film Institute’s Rafael Film Center through February 11.
W&H: Describe the film for us in your own words.
KBH: By accepting to turn his own body into a prestigious piece of art, Sam, a Syrian refugee, will come to realize that his decision might actually mean anything but freedom. How can he get out of this trap? How can he regain his dignity and his freedom? This is the dilemma of this unprivileged man born on the wrong side of our world.
“The Man Who Sold His Skin” is a tale about freedom. It’s also a modern day version of the Faust legend.
W&H: What drew you to this story?
KBH: This film is a meeting between two worlds that captivate me: the world of contemporary art and the world of refugees — two sealed worlds which are governed by entirely different codes. On the one hand, we have an established elitist world where freedom is the key word, and on the other hand, we have a world of survival impacted by current events where the absence of choice is the daily concern.
W&H: What do you want people to think about after they watch the film?
KBH: As we say, “A film doesn’t change the world but it changes our way of seeing it.”
I would love for people — after watching my film — to think about immigrants and refugees as singular human beings with their own specific stories, and not as a wave or a threat without a face as [they are so often] described in mass media.
W&H: What was the biggest challenge in making the film?
KBH: The biggest challenge was to finance this movie, to find enough resources to make it as ambitious as I wanted.
In the beginning financiers were skeptical — talking about the refugees in Europe or the contemporary art world, in a visual allegory full of colors, and with a male lead was unusual for my “profile.” By my “profile” I mean being a woman director from an African Arab Muslim cultural background.
[This film] clearly wasn’t what was expected from me. But being a screenwriter, I like to think outside the box of my own identity. Besides, I very much like the idea of doing something unexpected. This is what drives me the most.
W&H: How did you get your film funded? Share some insights into how you got the film made.
KBH: The funding of this movie was a real Chinese puzzle! Less than $3 million is a small budget for such a film, and it’s also very difficult to get.
“The Man Who Sold His Skin” is a co-production between five countries — Tunisia, France, Belgium, Sweden, and Germany — and every country has its own laws and constraints in terms of funding. My producers had to find solutions to harmonize everything. We had more than 20 different financiers. Being funded by this or that country means the obligation to work with people you don’t know only because they pay their taxes there.
I had an international crew from different cultural backgrounds, and ultimately the experience was fun and so enriching.
W&H: What inspired you to become a filmmaker?
KBH: I have been always fascinated by the figure of Scheherazade in “Arabian Nights”! In this old tale you have a serial killer king who went on butchering his new brides the day after they married because his first wife had cheated on him. Scheherazade volunteered to stop this massacre by being the next bride. To do so, Scheherazade decided to spin a series of stories that would keep the king hooked enough to decide not to kill her.
Here you have a wonderful allegory about the power of storytelling! This tale made me realize that I want to be a storyteller.
W&H: What’s the best and worst advice you’ve received?
KBH: Best advice: Keep on learning.
Worst advice: Get married.
W&H: What advice do you have for other women directors?
KBH: A film is like a high-level marathon — it takes years of your life and you can’t prepare for it the day before. It takes discipline and a lot of work. You have to research, read, learn, and be deeply interested in the human soul, history, literature, philosophy, and the current political context. You have to forge a vision of the world to then be able to say something interesting.
This “advice” is in reality valid for men as well as for women who want to do this job!
W&H: Name your favorite woman-directed film and why.
KBH: I love all Laura Poitras’ movies. I’m a great admirer of her courage and engagement. We need more voices like hers.
W&H: How are you adjusting to life during the COVID-19 pandemic? Are you keeping creative, and if so, how?
KBH: I’m very familiar with the lockdown situation because I do it from time to time to write, but being locked down with the rest of the humanity was quite strange. Being isolated and alone gives me the capacity to reflect, to learn, to write. So it was a very creative period for me.
W&H: What does it mean to you to have your film in the running for an Oscar in the International Feature category?
KBH: It means that it’s a movie among 93 movies and voters don’t have the time to see all of them. Hopefully they see mine at least!
W&H: The film industry has a long history of underrepresenting people of color onscreen and behind the scenes and reinforcing — and creating — negative stereotypes. What actions do you think need to be taken to make the film industry more inclusive?
KBH: As Napoleon used to say, “Money is the nerve of war.” This is not a secret. By funding different voices you get a plural and fairly represented film industry.