When Tunisian writer-director Kaouther Ben Hania first saw a retrospective of Belgian artist Wim Delvoye at the Louvre in 2012, it sparked many ideas in her head. She was especially inspired by one of the exhibits, a live shirtless man whose back was tattooed by the artist.

“It was quite a controversial piece, and this daring image stayed with me,” Ben Hania says during a recent Zoom interview from Paris. “I thought it was a good starting point for me to explore issues of identity, art and freedom. I asked myself, ‘What if this person had been a Syrian refugee and had to make this Faustian bargain to live in Europe?’”

More than eight years later, the result of Ben Hania’s musings is the Oscar-nominated feature “The Man Who Sold His Skin,” which tells the story of a Syrian refugee (portrayed by newcomer Yahya Mahayni) whose body becomes a precious art piece. Last week’s nomination of the film, which also stars Italian actress Monica Bellucci and Belgian actor Koen De Bouw, in the international feature category is a first for Tunisia.

The director says that while researching her movie, she was struck by how different behind-the-scenes players work together to raise the price of an artist. “It is almost a cliché in cinema to portray artists as misunderstood and tortured souls like Van Gogh who live in the margins of society,” says Ben Hania. “But art and power have always been linked throughout history.”