An Interview with Dea Liane and Yahya Mahayni
Inspired by real life events, Kaouther Ben Hania’s Academy Award nominated film, The Man Who Sold His Skin follows Sam (Yahya Mahyani) and Abeer (Dea Liane) as they are separated by the Syrian Civil War. In a desperate attempt to travel to Europe in search of Abeer, Sam agrees to have his back tattooed by one of the most controversial contemporary artists, becoming a human canvas and a living work of art.
I spoke with Dea and Yahya about their work on the film, how they first got involved with the project, and their experiences working with Kaouther Ben Hania.
Yahya: There is a reality that film is subjective, but irrespective of that it’s a film which provokes dialogue on various issues and I feel like it’s one of those films where people project onto the film their interpretation depending on their experiences. Each person tends to take away something that speaks to them or something that they oppose. I think that is something cool that this film ends up achieving.
Is it jarring to read reviews of your own work?
Yahya: For me it’s the first time there are reviews regarding a film I acted in. It’s not that jarring. I’ve watched films where I’m like, what the heck was that about, you know and out of a sense of gratification and reassurance I look at some of the comments of other viewers and I’m reassured to see that there are others who also share my point of view. In the meantime you look at the same film and look at people who liked it and ultimately it’s like taste in music or any type of art, it speaks to some people and doesn’t necessarily speak to others. I think there is an objective universal slide scale by which to assess a film and so criticism where it is constructive is actually pretty useful.
Dea: For me I don’t very much like to read reviews. It depends when it is a serious look on the work, but sometimes in France there are critic shows and I feel that I don’t always respect the work of all the critics, but some of them yes. We have to prepare ourselves for bad and good critics. In France we say gratuit. Sometimes you can really hurt an artist by just saying, or laughing at him. Sometimes it can be really hurtful.
Yaha: The word you are looking for there is very close in English, it’s gratuitous. Actually it’s funny that you mention that. I did see you in a stage play which you invited me to. I do recall reading some harsh reviews about that play, which were gratuitous. The good ones were the ones I felt I would associate more. It’s nice to know you already have experience facing reviews, I don’t.
How did you both first get involved with The Man Who Sold His Skin?
Yahya: I got contacted to do a self-taped audition first based on certain scenes. This was sometime after I had quit my ambitions of acting, so it came as a surprise. I sent the tapes and they liked what they saw and called me for an in-person audition. The in-person audition was two hours long. One hour was with Dea and another hour was on my own. The hour with Dea was meant to test the chemistry between Sam and Abeer, or how we would interpret Sam and Abeer. The other hour on my own was doing other scenes. An important part of the story is this love story, in fact that is the motivation for this character to sell his skin and conclude this Faustian pact. The love element was crucial to the story and so it was very important for Kaouther to test the chemistry between us. It worked out well on that day and I got called up a week later and I had the role, but all of it seemed quite surreal until we started filming to be honest.
Dea: For me it was also total chance because I just saw this announcement on Facebook and a friend had messaged on there. I’m a stage actress mainly so I didn’t have an agent, or any casting opportunities, so I just sent some photos and videos and it was kind of a long process. In the end, as Yahya said, I found myself at this audition in Paris with him and I also had an hour alone with Kaouther and the producer. She tested our ability to improvise together. We had learnt the text on the script, but she said just improvise. The difficult part for me was that I had to play in Arabic, which is my mother tongue, but I had forgotten this language because I lived mainly all my life in France. It was very difficult for me to find my spontaneity in Arabic and improvising in this language. I had prepared myself with all my family, my cousin and my mother and everyone. I also got the call just one or two weeks later and that’s how we got involved.
Was there a lot of room for improvisation?
Dea: Actually Kaouther has a way of working. The script is kind of a canvas for her and so she indicates the meaning of the scene with her text but it is our role to make it real and alive and add everything. Then she has her camera from the beginning during the rehearsals, she is working on her framing while we are improvising. Everything builds together, the image, the text and our acting. It was kind of an organic process.
Yahya: I think there was a total of thirteen versions of the script. Towards the later versions Kaouther was adapting it based on I suppose the fruits of our different improvisation. It wasn’t just total improvisation, it was directed improvisation. It helped discover new elements in the relationship between the two and to fix their communications and how they communicate with each other. When we first did the audition Sam was…
Dea: Much more harsh.
Yahya: Yes, more harsh, a smooth talker, but by the end of it he was much more fragile.
Dea: The personalities of the characters really moved a lot during the rehearsals, that’s true. Maybe that is because we came to the rehearsals with our personalities, so many things that she had imagined before, like Sam is supposed to be this Syrian boy who is harsh on her, but finally with our personal chemistry as Yahya said, it was maybe too much- I don’t want to suppose something about you Yahya! But she had to suffer a little bit, the character and I had to give her much more strength.
So the roles just sort of developed as the process began?
The film is loosely based on a true story?
Yahya: It’s inspired by Kaouther’s visit to the Louvre. I think back in 2012 where she discovered the work of Wim Delvoye. He had tattooed Tim Steiner’s back and this individual was just sitting there exhibited as a work of art. She found it so provocative and it haunted her for a while. She felt like she could create something out of this. Inspired by that, she thought what if that human canvas was a Syrian refugee. She felt it was nice to contrast two completely different worlds, on the one hand the international contemporary art world market with all its symbolism, capitalism and what not, and on the other hand the dire situation with Syrian refugees, even though refugees come from all over the place. From there, she created a story which is quite singular on her part because this is her second or third fiction. She has also done documentaries, docu-fiction and short films. She has done so many things, so with this story she really did apply herself as she did with her previous fiction films, but this one she took to another level.
Is that initially what drew you both to the film?
Yahya: What drew me to the film to begin with was the script. It isn’t necessarily the issues. The issues which arise in the film are plural and diverse and so really what attracted me to the role was obviously working on an ambitious film of this nature with a director whose previous works are quite admirable, but also from a storytelling perspective it carries you away. Obviously when I was reading it I knew I was auditioning for the role of Sam and so I’m also looking for the journey he goes through, from where it begins and ends. That’s super appealing as an actor because it offers so much scope for self-expression and character development and things you don’t necessarily get on short films which was all I had done previously.
Dea: I would also say what attracted me a lot was the storytelling. Kaouther really has the talent to tell stories. She’s not afraid about telling a story with all its poetic, non-realistic and realistic aspects. She really has the courage to go deeply into the naïve part of what a story can tell. It is not intellectual, I mean it is intellectual in what we can feel about all these themes- political, social and everything, but she also wants to entertain and she wants people to be moved and connected. It isn’t just an artistic position to make a film which nobody has made before, she really wants to give and it is very generous. That is what I felt when I read the script. I read it from the beginning to the end in like two hours and it was like reading a novel, it has the same generosity. When I saw the movie that is what I felt. I was just absorbed from the beginning until the end. It doesn’t happen a lot when I go to the cinema.
Yahya: That is a fair comment because I actually lack a culture in cinema, in the sense that when I read some reviews about films they make me feel about a whole number of things like metaphors, framing and techniques that didn’t occur to me when watching the film. The criteria by judging whether or not I liked the film is whether or not I thought of anything not related to the film when watching the film. On this film I thought of many things not related to the film, thinking this what she meant by this and this, but ultimately I too was carried by the film when I first discovered it. That is the basis on which I say I love this film. Obviously now with the knowledge I’m getting from the different perspectives that are expressed in reviews and critical analysis of the film, it actually offers different perspectives of the film which I didn’t necessarily have when I watched it. It’s actually quite amazing the layers of thought and nuance that are incorporated into the characters and the story as a whole.
Dea: And which she kept from us. She didn’t speak at all with us, she just had to say the minimum information to act the scenes, but there was so many things and details that she just didn’t say to us like the symbolism, the images, the echoes that come between scenes, all of the plastic and pictorial aspects of it. It was intuitive when we read the script, I felt it was something very big and something behind the script that was her vision, but actually we discovered that vision at the end in Venice during the festival. That was kind of crazy. She’s a very secretive person.
Yahya: There are just so many details that we are not aware of as actors. We are not conscious of all the preparation work that comes in beforehand. She knew all the locations in which we were going to film. They had a storyboard and knew how they were going to frame the characters and what they were framing. She was also working closely with her set designer. Everything was really planned out down to the most minute detail.
Dea: Actually the director of photography, Christopher Aoun said that he rarely worked with directors who prepared so much. She had thought of everything, but was ready to change everything if it didn’t work on the day of shooting. He said in interviews that it was crazy to see how much she had imagined a scene.
It’s interesting that you both had that experience watching the film…
Yahya: Yes, big time.
What I particularly liked about the film, is that it tackles a lot of issues such as the refugee crisis and political repression, without ever losing focus of the storytelling…
Dea: We can see many movies that are very realistic and difficult about the refugee crisis. It wasn’t her point of view, she wanted to address this, but not in a violent, direct, or from a political point of view, but like a fable, a tale. It’s like when you read old tales, you can tell everything through a tale and that is what is so great about it.
It’s great that it is getting the recognition it deserves. What would you say were the biggest challenges for you both while shooting the film?
Dea: For me the challenge before shooting was the Arabic, and that was already clear. I really wanted to do this seriously. Sometimes I watch movies with, I don’t know, Lebanese actors pretending they are Syrian and you listen to the movie and don’t believe the story. I real wanted to make possible that I was this young Syrian woman living in Damascus. I went back to Syria. Because of the war I hadn’t travelled to Syria in many years, so when I knew that I had the role I planned a trip to Damascus. That was a big challenge for me. I was really working on that, not only on the language, but also what was the energy of the character. My character in the script appears and disappears all of the time. There are many ellipses, so you find her at the beginning when she is young and then you find her after her wedding and it’s a different person. It’s difficult for me to imagine what was going on between the scenes. I really tried to work on that because I like to write and so I had this journal.
Yahya: You are pre-empting things that I am going to say now. That’s my line!
Dea: The day of the shooting I tried to forget all of this and the challenge was to be open and what comes in the present and when she says action just let myself be carried by what is going on between us. My big challenge was not to get stressed, or isolate myself from the team which was on the shooting because there were so many people around us. In theatre you are alone, but in cinema there are people like two metres apart from you. That was difficult a big challenge too and to let go of all the things I’d imagined alone and to trust Kaouther in the direction given to me and not to keep everything I had prepared, just to trust and let go.
Yahya: For me as well, everything that Dea said precisely were also my apprehensions. You read the script and I approached it in terms of making the mistake of the character goes through a succession of humiliations, each humiliation varying in degree of intensity. Firstly his sister doesn’t think he is up to the standard of Abeer and doesn’t think that she will accept him as a suitor. Then Abeer’s mum passes a comment and a look that affects him, and then a comment that his flatmate gives him when he is in Beirut. So it’s one thing after another, he’s humiliated and his Mum starts calling into question whether or not he was taken advantage of. There is just a succession of humiliations and I’m thinking how am I going to portray this? Actually one thing I came to realise was that my role is not to portray, my role is just to live it out. As Dea says, to leave it to Kaouther to direct me and also live truthfully in the scenes that are played out with the different characters and with Dea which were the most important ones. It takes some letting go. During the filming itself the main challenge was just sometimes coming back after a day of filming and thinking I could have done this, or done that and I’ve messed this up. The reality of this is you don’t have the luxury of being in this constant self torture examination because you have to prepare for the next day. Ultimately you learn to just go with the flow and trust the director.
Dea: The challenge for you was also to keep your energy all along. Every day of shooting Yahya was there. He had 35 days of shooting and was in every frame. Compared to me as I had days off, it was very short and intense shooting. It was very ambitious and we had little time. I think also the challenge was about keeping your mind.
Yahya: I agree and disagree because I think it actually helped keep the momentum going. If I had too much time off between some days and other days of filming, I think I would have probably disconnected a little bit.
Dea: That’s also the difficulty of having days off because when you are coming back on set you just have to re-tell the story.
Yahya: The other thing I discovered is that you don’t film in order of the film. The first or second day of filming we filmed the scene which is in the reception hall when Sam just got purchased by Christian and is exhibited in the reception area and then the actual artist who tattooed Tim’s back has a cameo role as the insurer. We are not filming in the order of the storyline and that also takes some adaption. All of that was a nice learning curve.
Are you both currently working on any other projects?
Dea: I always have my theatre projects going on. Because of the crisis I haven’t played in front of an audience for maybe one year. It’s very hard for me as it’s a way to still have a desire for my career. It’s very difficult just to rehearse and not to perform. I rehearsed a lot this year. I’m in a play by Shakespeare, Anthony and Cleopatra which we are making here in Paris and I’m rehearsing another show in maybe one week. I still have many projects going on. I'm just hoping theatres will open soon, so we get to do what we want to do which is sharing with the audience, it doesn’t have meaning otherwise. We’ll see if there are other cinema opportunities, it would be great.
Yahya: I really hope to see you in the cinema, Dea. I love theatre, but I just love the fact that in cinema you can get so close and intimate with the camera to the actor. Having seen you on stage and screen the whole different experience is crazy. It didn’t help that in the theatre that I was sitting so far away. Everyone in my entourage who has seen the film has said the same thing, you just give off this vibrancy which is obviously partially due to your eyes. I hope to see you on the big screen. As for me I don’t have plans in the pipeline at the moment.