Director: Kaouther Ben Hania (Tunisia, France, Belgium, Germany, Sweden, Qatar, Cyprus). Year of Release: 2021
Syria, 2011. A man and a woman sit next to each other on the train. As they are talking, his hand moves over to hers. She withdraws, telling him that someone may see them. At first, he moves over to the opposite seat but then obviously thinks “fuck it!” and stands up to declare his love, loudly adding “This is a Revolution!” and calling for freedom. The carriage rises and dances in approval, and someone films it all on a mobile phone. This is how Sam ends up in prison.
Sam manages to escape across the border. Abeer, the woman to whom he declared his undying love, also escapes. Her family is richer, though not appreciative of what she wants, so she is married off to a slimy diplomat. She now has a good job as a translator in Brussels. Sam’s life is going less swimmingly – he’s working as a chicken sexer in Lebanon and often gets by by crashing art vernissages and pinching whatever food and drink he can find.
At one such exhibition, when they hear that he’s a Syrian refugee, they patronise him to within an inch of his life. At the exhibition, he meets conceptual artist Jeffrey Godefroi who offers him what he’s looking for – money and a visa and safe passage to Europe – at the cost of his body. Godefroi intends to tattoo his next work on Sam’s back and to exhibit him around the world. Ironically – or, if you’d prefer, insensitively, the tattoo will be of a Schengen visa.
Godefroi ensures that the first stage of the tour exhibiting Sam will be in Brussels, giving Sam the chance of reuniting with Abeer, And yet he cannot avoid the cloying presence of Abeer’s new husband Ziad. Even when he has the chance of getting one over on his rival, Sam’s love for Abeer is such that he saves Ziad for her happiness.
Some reviews have criticized Der Mann, der seine Haut verkaufte for its lack of subtlety, but if we live in a world where commodities find it easier to cross borders than human beings, then maybe it’s our world that needs a little more nuance. After all, this is a film that shows a Person of Colour being sold at an auction house without seeming remotely unrealistic. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.
The film also examines the power relations in transactions which like to depict themselves as being between equals. At one point, Godefroi says “Sometimes I think I’m Mephistopheles”. Yes, he does occasionally offer to help Sam, yes, Sam does get to stay at luxury hotels, but this does not prevent him from being essentially Godefroi’s chattel. As a refugee, his existence is always precarious and dependent on the good will of people who are richer and, let’s face it, whiter than himself.
A bidding war opens for Sam, and Godefroi and his assistant Soraya (answer to the question: whatever happened to Monica Bellucci?) start to be confronted with awkward questions. Seeing as Sam no longer owns his body, how is he any different to a prostitute or human traffic? Their inability to provide adequate answers speak volumes not just about how Sam is being treated as a “work of art” but also of the general dehumanizing of refugees.
Sam finally has enough, and storms the auction in a parody of a suicide bomber. Sam has had enough and battles with his lawyer who tries to get him off on the basis that the people running away were clearly acting on the racist stereotypes which they had internalized. That’s as maybe, says Sam, but he deliberately set out to shock them. As his lawyer looks on in despair, Sam begs to be sent to one more jail where he can be finally at peace.
This is not the end of the film, but to go further we’re headed into serious plot spoiler territory. Normally, I’m fairly sanguine about plot spoilers, as most “unexpected” developments are either in the trailer already, or just so obvious that it would take more than inclusion in a film review to cause any serious grief. And yet the twist towards the end was so surprizing while at the same time conforming fully to the mood and message of the film, that I got annoyed that I didn’t anticipate it.
Der Mann… makes a number of simple, but important, points. I think that it’s been least appreciated by people who fail to see the structural imbalances in society, and see it is “mere” superficial satire. Many reviews have compared it to the Swedish film, The Square, which most people enjoyed more than I did. But where (as far as I’m concerned at least) The Square picked at the edges of the fluff of the contemporary art world, this is a film which sees a society in crisis.
Of course, none of this would work if the film weren’t brilliantly written and acted. In particular, Yahya Mahayni as Sam carries a lot of the film. But credit also to Kaouther Ben Hania, who as the (relatively) young female director must have experiences seared to her soul which correspond to Sam’s story of being both patronised and exploited by the Art “industry”, Let’s hope that she continues to produce this sort of reaction.