From Dagenham in Essex via the Netherlands, Dutch writer/director Sacha Polak and English actress Vicky Knight were jetlagged but cheerful ahead of the premiere of Polak’s Dirty God. Knight plays Jade, a young woman who was the victim of an acid attack and whose scars become a challenge: to live as a victim or take life into her own hands and on her own terms.
Knight is an engaging, fresh screen presence. Polak, whose previous films include Zurich and Hemel, both candid depictions of female sexuality, was committed to casting an actress who had scars rather than prosthetics and, though Knight was the victim of an accidental fire rather than acid, she brings unprecedented nuance and layers to the role, hard won from her own history.
“When I was in school and college I was bullied a lot, I was beat up,” Knight tells FilmInk. “I started believing I was a monster. My teacher said ‘you need to do something with your story’, so I made a video about how I got burnt as a child to educate people. It went viral on Facebook and YouTube, then this TV program sought me out, a dating program called Too Ugly for Love, where they put me on blind dates. I got loads of hate mail. My confidence was ruined, so when Lucy (Pardee, casting director for Dirty God) found me on social media it took a year to convince me.”
The story has Jade dancing and swimming and there are intimate web cam scenes, confronting for any actor, experienced or otherwise.
“I’d never done acting, but I loved being on set,” Knight says. “We had a movement coach, so I could open up and not be embarrassed in front of people. The acting came from the heart, from my own personal experiences. I relate to Jade for the bullying she has, for her issues about self-confidence, for trying to expose herself and trying to find a doctor who could help her. It was easy in a way, because I’d been through all of that, but it was also very emotional because I had to relive it in an adult version. I was only eight when my accident happened, so I didn’t understand it all back then.”
The film opens with the soundtrack of a haunting song while the camera pans over the surface of damaged skin.
“I am flesh, bones, skin, soul, I am human.”
Gradually we understand we are looking at a burns victim and are with her as she leaves hospital, seeing the streets and houses afresh after a long convalescence. We discover that she’s a single mum and the first person visibly upset by her appearance is her own small child. Her own mother discloses how hard it was for her to visit the hospital and face the horror of the damage done to her daughter.
Then there’s the humour and comfort of a robust friendship with Shami (Rebecca Stone), who helps Jade go clubbing. The scenes are a release of tension with great dialogue and London slang, as Jade confides without censoring herself. The friend sticks up for Jade against ignorant onlookers but in the end even this bestie can only go so far, while for Jade it’s a journey that never ends.
“The collaboration with Vicky was very important for my directing,” Polak says. “Things changed because of what she brought to the film, and the young actors helped with the slang, so the script wasn’t set in stone, it was improvised a lot. For preparation, I worked with the DP [Ruben Impens] to make this big presentation with storyboard and pictures. It was a four country co-production, so it was complicated getting funding. Dutch film has been supportive and in the end the BBC came on board and then we could go ahead.
Polak’s storytelling is fluid and artistic. You could say it’s in her DNA.
“My father and stepmother are documentary makers and my mother was an actress. When I was young, I was painting and writing and acting. I feel that film combines all of these. For me personally, documentary is very hard, I always like playing around visually and when you make a drama you can say ‘this is one version of the truth’, but in documentary you are really stuck with trying to report the story.”
The idea for Dirty God came about when Polak saw a young, scarred woman at a music festival in the Netherlands. “My first reaction was to look away, and I noticed lots of people were doing that. I thought it was really terrible. She was confronted with it every day of her life. That idea stayed with me for some time.
“My films have tended to focus on a female protagonist. I like a character who is not one dimensional and who is flawed. The process is collaborative and creative, but my intention is to find a way to touch people. When I see how this film has impacted, it’s rewarding to feel we’ve done something worthwhile.”
Polak and Knight expect an emotional Q&A at the premiere, and are unlikely to be fazed after a recent tour of 20 cities in the Netherlands and successful screenings at the Rotterdam and Sundance Film Festivals in January.
“It was incredible,” Knight says. “A really positive reaction. We’ve had a lot of burns survivors talking to us and how they relate a lot and learned from the character in the film. Even people with learning disabilities and mental health issues could relate because of trying to cope with life with something wrong or different. I know how they feel, I didn’t want to live with my scars before I started filming. I became so desperate for friends, I started taking the mickey out of myself to make people laugh.
Knight works in a London hospital as a nurse in A&E [Accident & Emergency] and the burns unit that saved her, but her performance and screen presence in Dirty God is credible enough to have attracted an agent and auditions. Meanwhile, there are invitations to do more talks and a conference for surgeons.
“I want to be a voice with the message that being different is OK. Really, what’s embarrassing about having scars? Everyone’s got something, whether it’s mental or physical. There’s nothing wrong with it.”