Yahya Mahayni returned to acting to play a human canvas in “The Man Who Sold His Skin”

Yahya Mahayni in “The Man Who Sold His Skin,” directed by Kaouther Ben Hania. Courtesy of Studio Soho Distribution

As the tired saying goes, “Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life.” Kaouther Ben Hania’s latest feature film, “The Man Who Sold His Skin” takes this trope and makes both spheres completely indistinguishable from each other.

Taking inspiration from Belgian conceptual artist Wim Delvoye and his human artwork “Tim,” the film follows its own piece of human artwork, Sam Ali (Yahya Mahayni). Sam is a Syrian refugee who flees to Lebanon to escape war, continuing to Europe in a bid to win back Abeer (Dea Liane), the love of his life.

To secure a European visa, Sam makes a deal with a high-profile artist Jeffrey Godefroi (Koen De Bouw), and allows him to turn his back into a tattooed canvas. In securing freedom of movement, Sam becomes tethered to the museum installation he is a living attraction in and hindered by becoming the property of Jeffrey, and later buyers.

The film balances satirical commentary on the sometimes pretentious overtones of the art world, and the sensitivity of longing for home when you have been displaced by war. Jeffrey marks Sam with a tattoo of a visa on his back, which encourages viewers to think about the western commodification and voyeurism towards suffering in the global south – AKA “poverty porn.”

Yahya Mahayni sat down with MESA to discuss why he returned to acting to take on the role of Sam Ali. He shared insight into how he prepared for such a physically and emotionally complex role, and why he doesn’t love contemporary art – sorry NTF enthusiasts.

How did you get cast as Sam Ali?

I got involved with the project through a phone call on a summer morning. Kaouther was looking for them to cast the main role and someone had come across my pictures, which I had sent to a casting director two years beforehand.

By that time I had already quit acting so I got a phone call out of the blue asking me to pass some self-taped auditions for this role. And I was like, no way [but] did the self-tape audition and then some in-person auditions with the character that plays Abeer. I got the role and then everything went from there.

Yahya Mahayni and Dea Liane play displaced lovers Sam Ali and Abeer. Courtesy of Studio Soho Distribution.

Was the role a natural fit for you or did it require a lot of character development?

I did relate a lot to some of Sam’s attributes and the character and I did think that I was a natural fit, but then I realised that there was a lot more work to do to actually achieve what the director intended with this character.

There were a lot of adjustments and obviously I think there were instances where I didn’t actually understand the character’s decisions and to be able to understand them, you have to work on building the character and understand what leads him to see and interpret things in that way. So, it took a lot of work with the director, but eventually we kind of settled on who Sam Ali is.

The role is so heavily reliant on your physical appearance and your body. How did that affect your characterisation of Sam Ali?

I knew I was going to be topless for so much time and, with me, past a certain weight level my love handles go out of control, and so I went on a crazy diet. I starved myself and I lost eight kilos. I had to because already I look built and it didn’t suit the character. I was quite conscious of that and so was Kaouther.

And then obviously just [played on] the freedom of the character because he’s always constrained as a work of art in the museum and what I liked is whenever I was just spontaneous with my body. Kaouther was quite supportive of that liberty and the physical movement, and I really liked that. There’s a scene where she just let me improvise and it was funny.

Yahya Mahayni as Sam Ali in the exhibition space where he is a living art installation. Courtesy of Studio Soho Distribution.

How did you go about developing on-screen chemistry and the relationships that we see on screen?

With the actor who plays Abeer, Dea Liane, we met a lot and we improvised a lot and Kaouther adapted the script based on some of the things that she discovered from our interpretations and improvisations. So, that helped build that relationship.

Then the relationship between Sam and the gallery manager of Jeffrey Godefroi, who’s played by Monica Bellucci, we did some readings of the different scenes but work with her was more based on the spontaneity of each scene. With Koen De Bouw who portrays Jeffrey Godefroi, again, we did some readings, some improvisation, and, adapted the script based on the interesting things that were coming out of that.

Even during filming, we improvised. This helped freshen up some of the scenes where, perhaps, something was missing in the dialogue.

Monica Bellucci as Soraya Waldi, a gallery manager who takes advantage of Sam Ali. Courtesy of Studio Soho Distribution.

References to art are both overt and covert in this film. Can you give us an insight into the role of art in the story?

It’s a huge portion and, honestly, I’m not in a position to answer this question on behalf of Kaouther but she put in so much work in, in terms of art. There are the museum scenes where you see all the artwork of Wim Delvoye which were provocative – some of them were tattoos on pigs. There are the works of Roberto Ferri who collaborated on this film. You see all the paintings of Roberto Ferri in the museum and Sam’s hotel room.

The character is a work of art and so there’s that. Tattooing human skin is in itself something which has a Roald Dahl parallel, there is also a French film “Le Tatoué” with Jean Gabin, and tattooing has also been part of Japanese culture for ages.

It just shows the diversity of art and the mercantile aspect of art in Jeffrey’s character and the fact that he just tries to sensationalise his work merely by signing his name on it. Personally, I’m not a fan of contemporary art and so I kind of did relate to Sam’s [disregard for] contemporary art in general.

Yahya Mahayni as Sam Ali after he has been sold to a wealthy couple. Courtesy of Studio Soho Distribution.

What is it about contemporary art that doesn’t engage you?

I don’t know. I think that’s a great question but contemporary art is a very wide term and I don’t know what you would categorise as contemporary art. I like to write poems, which are not in any stance or structure that’s, I suppose, a sort of contemporary style. I think what I like in contemporary artists is the skill of the artist as a painter, as someone who draws, as a sculptor, and not just the abstract concept of putting a painting, like Joan Miró, just in blue with a line across it.

Should we even ask what you think of NFTs (non-fungible tokens)? The selling of an $18,300 invisible sculpture by Salvatore Garau and other concepts like that that people are doing at the moment.

I didn’t even know what an NFT was [until today] and they’re being sold for real? That’s too funny. How do you legally attest to your property rights over that NFT? These guys are the new generation though. I’m already old school. I’m almost 38 so I only found out what NFT’s were half an hour ago.

Yahya Mahayni as Sam Ali being auctioned off to the highest bidder. Courtesy of Studio Soho Distribution.

What do you want people to take away from this film because it is very abstract? There is a lot that can be inferred from these themes but what do you want people to take away from your character?

I want people to come out having been entertained. Ultimately this is a fiction movie. You’re going to the cinema to watch it, you’re looking to be immersed in the film and not think about your pizza in the oven, not check your phone, maybe eat some popcorn if COVID allows it.

That’s what I would love. If people come away from this relating somewhat to some of the themes which are evoked because there’s a lot of themes. There’s the contradiction between money and humanity, the internal contradiction between one’s principles, and the exceptions to those principles.

Yahya Mahayni and Koen De Bouw posing as Sam Ali and Jeffrey Godefroi. Courtesy of Studio Soho Distribution.

There’s a lot of layers of complexity within the film and so if people can actually discern those and then use those to apply it to themselves or to see things differently then, wow, that would be great.

I think Kaouther herself didn’t want to make this about a moral, she avoids the sort of morality and any underlying arrogance that’s in it. I think she wants people to come away with their impressions of the themes.

The Man Who Sold His Skin was released on 24th September in UK cinemas.

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