Oscars 2021: Two films by Arab directors are shortlisted

'The Present' and 'The Man Who Sold His Skin' are in the running for the 2021 Academy Awards

Director Farah Nabulsi on the set of her film 'The Present'. Philistine Films / Native Liberty
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Two works by Arab filmmakers have made it on to this year's Oscars shortlist.

Palestinian-British director Farah Nabulsi's short film The Present and Tunisian filmmaker Kaouther Ben Hania's critically acclaimed drama The Man Who Sold His Skin are both in the running for the 2021 Oscars.

The former has been shortlisted in the Live Action Short category, while the latter has a chance at winning the International Feature Film award.

However, while the shortlists for nine categories were announced on Wednesday, we will have to wait until March 15 – when the nominations will be officially revealed – to know if the films will make the final cut for the 93rd Academy Awards.

Both films have generated considerable buzz since they were released last year.

The Present, which marks Nabulsi's directorial debut, won the audience award at the Clermont-Ferrand International Short Film Festival in February 2020, where it had its world premiere.

The film tells the story of Yousef, played by Palestinian actor Saleh Bakri, who decides to go with his daughter to buy a gift for his wife on their wedding anniversary. The task of shopping for the gift is almost impossible because of the challenges of life under occupation.

In an interview with The National last year, Nabulsi said the film was about the freedom of movement as a basic human right.

“At its essence, the film is about human dignity and the importance of dignity and what it means for someone to continuously be dehumanised,” she said. “It’s a simple story that speaks volumes about the absurd situation that exists there [in Palestine].”

Ben Hania's latest film is also ripe with searing political commentary. Like The Present, it explores the theme of freedom, but through the eyes of a Syrian refugee who becomes commodified as an artwork.

The Man Who Sold His Skin follows the protagonist in Lebanon, as he agrees to have his back tattooed by a famous artist in the hopes of joining his partner in Paris. However, he is soon viewed as a 'work of art', worth an enormous sum.

The inspiration for the film, Ben Hania told The National last year, came from real life. In 2006, Belgian artist Wim Delvoye produced the piece Tim, for which he tattooed the back of Tim Steiner, a former studio owner from Zurich, Switzerland. He sold the living artwork to a collector, and as part of the slightly macabre contract, Steiner received a third of the sale price and agreed to have his back skinned after his death so the owner could hang this unique piece on their wall.

“The original work of art was just a starting point,” said Ben Hania.

“Many movies start with an image, then you have to have a story with an emotional journey.”

Also representing the Middle East in the shortlist is director Majid Majidi's 2020 Iranian drama Sun Children, which tackles the subject of forced child labour.

The 93rd Oscars is scheduled to take place on Sunday, April 25.