The Man Who Sold His Skin is based on Delvoye’s Tim, an artist who tattooed his work on a guy’s back, a man who now sits in exhibit halls displaying it. In this film, the canvass is Sam Ali, a Syrian refugee who sells his back to a famous artist to gain safe passage to Europe.
This film is chocca with themes. It’s about art and its commodification, the devaluing of human life in comparison with the arbitrary value placed on status symbols, religious metaphor with the visa as salvation, and Faustian deals which bring you closer to Hell as you approach an imagined Heaven.
It also has a very human story at the centre of it, that of Sam and Abeer, two young people in love at the start of the war. Sam is impetuous, impatient, eager to get married. Abeer reveals that she loves him while they sit together on a train, and Sam passionately declares to the carriage that he loves her and asks for a sheikh to marry them there and then. Unfortunately he also in his exuberance adds a few words about the optimism for a new age through the Revolution.
Thus they are separated. Sam is arrested by security forces, and has to flee to Lebanon. As war approaches, Abeer marries a man who is a foreign diplomat who can take her abroad to safety. Maybe Hell is just being given time to sit with your mistakes.
Sam cannot accept that their love is doomed, and meets a famous artist who says he can take him to Belgium where Abeer is. He can make him rich. He can bring him out of the margins of society and make him famous and valued. “Call me Mephistopheles,” he says.
He tattoos Sam’s back with a visa stamp, turning him into a work of international art. As a human being he could do nothing and go nowhere. As an object, he has international passage and is valued as precious.
But will it actually get Sam what he wants? Or will being in Belgium only bring home just how out of reach a married woman is? Will this visa free him or mark him for permanent ownership?