The aboriginal affair we see in The Man Who Sold His Bark is animal hide: flayed, affected and adapted into an artwork. Gloved easily present the canvas of corrective bark at bargain in all its abominable glory. It belongs to Sam Ali, a Syrian refugee and avoiding who agrees to accept his aback tattooed by a conceptual artisan in a Faustian barter for a European acceptance that turns him into a animal artwork, apparent on arcade plinths and gawped at by the world.
“That was absolutely a replica of my bark in the aperture scene,” says Yahya Mahayni, the Syria-born amateur who plays Sam. “They fabricated a mould of my aback with all its imperfections and again put it on pigskin because that looks like animal skin.”
A mix of art-world satire, backer critique, accursed adulation adventure and geopolitical refugee drama, the Tunisian blur stars Mahayni alongside Dea Liane, who plays his conflicting lover, Abeer, forth with Koen De Bouw as the Mephistophelian artisan and Monica Bellucci his canny, authoritative assistant.
Written and directed by Kaouther Ben Hania, it had a boastful premiere in Venice in 2020 and was nominated for a best all-embracing affection Oscar beforehand this year. “It was a actual affecting moment for me and for Yahya,” says Liane. “One of the best affecting moments of my life.”
As alien as the film’s axial conceit may sound, it was aggressive by real-life display Tim Steiner, whose aback was corrective by the Belgian artist, Wim Delvoye, and apparent at the Louvre in 2012. But area there are parallels amid Delvoye’s Tim and the film’s Sam, the two “artworks” are not ethical equivalents. “Steiner advisedly agreed to his arrangement with Delvoye and is blessed to sit in a building to this day,” says Mahayni, “but Sam agreed to his arrangement below bondage of circumstances.”
Yet his appearance additionally refuses to see himself as a victim and rejects the advice of those who appetite to save him from actuality objectified. “Yes,” says Mahayni. “Kaouther was annoyed of seeing films assuming refugees as victims. She capital Sam to be a hero and in the action of acceptable a array of hero he does catechism the acumen of his decision.”
Mahayni’s acute achievement won him two awards at Venice; no beggarly accomplishment for an amateur in his aboriginal anytime blur role. How did he appear to comedy Sam? Ben Hania capital to acquisition Syrian actors to comedy the leads, he explains, and had been analytic beyond continents. A casting administrator gave her photos of Mahayni from a few years earlier, although he had aloof absitively to accord up on acting at that point. Now 37, he retrained as an amateur seven years ago afterwards a first, dynamic, career as a advocate with appropriate ability in all-embracing adjudication (he has a amount from Dundee University, a master’s from the Sorbonne and still teaches at Queen Mary University of London). Several years on from retraining, he was award it absurd to alive on the money he was authoritative at the basal rung of acting, until Ben Hania came along.
It was Liane’s aboriginal blur role, too, accepting formed alone on date in France. She, too, was built-in in Syria but her ancestors larboard Damascus aback she was two and she grew up in Lebanon and Paris. She absitively to acknowledgment to Syria in 2018 afterwards actuality casting in the role. “I feel French, culturally, but I capital to brainstorm my appearance as accurately as possible. I backward in Damascus for two weeks over Christmas and went walking in the neighbourhoods area I could brainstorm Abeer would walk. As I was abnormality about I saw a babe bridge the artery who looked absolutely as Abeer would.”
Liane speaks French and Arabic in the blur and she didn’t appetite her emphasis to accord her abroad either so she formed on bed-making out any French inflections. “At aboriginal the accentuation was a affectionate of agreeable training for me but it dug up affections that were affiliated to the language.” She additionally acquainted her cruise to Damascus was basic in reminding her of the cultural borders that Abeer faces in the film. As a woman built-in into an aloof family, the anticipation of marrying a man like Sam – from a chic able-bodied below her own – carries a big amusing stigma. “When I apprehend the calligraphy I thought: ‘I wouldn’t accomplish the aforementioned choices as Abeer’ because I was seeing things in a western way. But aback I went aback it became actual bright that a babe can’t do that, not alone in my own family, which is Christian, but added broadly in Syrian society. It’s a big cultural taboo.”
What was it like to act alongside the brand of Monica Bellucci? “Oh, it was surreal,” says Mahayni, “but again you get acclimated to it because she gets into the role absolutely bound so, ultimately, you’re speaking to her character. It was added alarming to assignment with De Bouw and [the Lebanese actor] Darina Al Joundi, who plays my mother and is a beauteous performer. It became a acceptable befalling to apprentice from them.”
The blur begins with the access of the Arab bounce and Syrian civilian war in 2011 but Mahayni’s ancestors larboard Syria for Canada aback he was three, continued afore battle bankrupt out: “One of the affidavit I acquainted as if I had no angary to comedy this role was because I haven’t lived through annihilation that compares.”
Still, he was 27 and active in London aback he witnessed the country’s unravelling: “Any battle polarises bodies and reduces nuance. You can see anybody wants accord and abundance but it’s aloof become so divided. I got so beat of watching it on the account that I stopped. I acquisition it to be about too aching and disheartening.”
Liane had followed the war on the account too and acquainted added abandoned over the years. Arena Abeer brought catharsis: “I’ve consistently acquainted awe-inspiring about actuality in France, alive what my country of agent is activity through. I’ve acquainted blank in the face of it so actuality allotment of this cine absolutely helped me – I was animated to accord and accurate article about it.”
Mahayni, meanwhile, admits to disturbing with arena Sam at first. He is a bold, bent character, he thinks, but additionally bad-tempered and immature, appearance a suicide bombing central an bargain house, absolutely for his own amusement. “I begin some of his accomplishments selfish,” says Mahayni, so on Ben Hania’s suggestion, he began watching masterclasses by the brand of Samuel L Jackson and Natalie Portman in the achievement of anecdotic added carefully with the role. “One actual advantageous affair that Jackson says is that you can’t adjudicator your appearance so I absolutely approved to empathise with what Sam was activity through but I still don’t like him, to some extent. I adore his love, his determination, but sometimes he’s aloof a bit annoying.”
Ultimately, thinks Mahayni, this is a blur not about refugees but “inequality which is insurmountable as a aftereffect of aback you’re born, area you’re born, what ancestors you’re built-in into, what authorization you hold. Kaouther was pointing out the applesauce in declaring that adequation and address for animal beings is accepted on the one hand, and on the added duke suggesting that we as animal beings abode added accent on money than life.”
Which brings us to the film’s allegation of the art apple – its venalities and hypocrisies which about-face Sam into a article alike below the guise of critiquing the way association dehumanises refugees. Sam is advisedly audacious of the apple in which he finds himself, alike if he is affected into complicity. What is Mahayni’s appearance of abreast art? “I bethink aback I was in London and I went to the Tate to see an exhibition by Joan Miró. There was a ample white canvas with aloof a band beyond it and I was like: ‘Wow, this is so … bush and meaningless.” An amateur afterwards his character’s heart, afterwards all.
The Man Who Sold His Bark is in cinemas on Friday.
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