Writer-director Kaouther Ben Hania was inspired by a true story to make the 2017 film Beauty and the Dogs about a university student who is raped by policemen and then fights her way through the Tunisian justice system to bring them to justice.

Ben Hania has again found from real-life her inspiration for the fictional film The Man Who Sold His Skin. In 2012 she visited the Louvre and saw a retrospective of the work of Belgian artist Wim Delvoye, including one “piece” in which he tattooed the back of a man named Tim Steiner and gave him one-third of the profits in exchange for Steiner displaying himself in museums around the world.

In The Man Who Sold His Skin, Sam Ali (Yahya Mahayni) lives in Syria at a time when protestors demand democratic reforms, and the government of dictator Bashar al-Assad responds with harsh repression.

Sam is in love with Abeer (Dea Liane). When she declares her love for him while they are on a bus together, Sam jumps up and says to the others on the bus, “My friends, it’s a revolution. We want freedom. So let’s be free.” He and Abeer begin dancing, and their fellow passengers join in. When the government forces learn about this incident, Sam is arrested as an anti-government revolutionary and is forced to flee to Lebanon.

Life in Beirut is not easy for Syrian refugees. But when he crashes an art exhibition, a famous artist, Jeffrey Godefroi (Koen De Bouw), makes him an offer: in exchange for letting the artist tattoo his back with an image of a visa for the Schengen zone (which encompasses 26 European countries), he will guarantee Sam one-third of the profits. To escape the escalating conflict and to please her parents, Abeer has married a diplomat and moved to Brussels. So Sam, seeing the opportunity to reconnect with Abeer, agrees. Soon Sam is living in five-star hotels and eating caviar, but he has also been transformed into an object, a commodity, and, by most people, he is treated as such. At one exhibition, the museum is invaded by a group of Syrian refugees who denounce Sam’s compliance in allowing himself to be exploited by insensitive rich art patrons.

Meanwhile, Sam really has earned so much money, and sent it home to his family, that his sister and her husband have been able to open a restaurant and his whole family are living better lives. But all Sam really wants is to get back with Abeer.

If this mocking of the art world sounds like the Swedish Academy Award-nominated film The Square, not quite. The Man Who Sold His Skin has some twists to it, most notably that Jeffrey the artist turns out to be not such a bad guy after all. For example, early on, he points out that Sam, as a refugee, isn’t treated like other human beings who were born lucky. But as a commodity, he is able to travel and cross borders freely, just like other commodities.