The English-language debut of Dutch director Sacha Polak, Dirty God follows a young London mother, Jade (newcomer Vicky Knight), as she tries to reassemble her life after an acid attack leads to disfigurement and burns across her face and upper body – the unprovoked assault coming courtesy of her ex-boyfriend and father of her child. The injuries change the ways in which many people interact with her, altering her sense of self, driving her to pursue cheap plastic surgery in Morocco and fracturing her relationships with her mother, Lisa (Katherine Kelly), and infant daughter.
With co-writer Susie Farrell, Polak eschews common on-screen treatments of burn survivors, avoiding making Jade an object of pity and passivity but also not placing her on a pedestal. She is a complicated, well-rounded character who makes impulsive, sometimes disastrous decisions. Dirty God is a complex story of survival, not victimhood. Her trauma is not easy to boil down: there’s relatively little soul-searching or self-pity, and she has recurring sex dreams about her attacker.
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“I saw a young burn survivor at a music festival,” Polak says of the inspiration for her drama. “I looked at her and I flinched, and I saw everybody around her doing the same thing. I thought, this woman, who had severe scars on her face, deals with this every single day of her life. I wanted to make a film about a young woman who could never hide from this thing. Your face is your identity, it’s your first portal of communication.”
Working out of London, Polak and Farrell started interviewing young female burn survivors: “We talked to them about how they felt about themselves, if they thought they would find a new partner in life, what the hurdles were. For us, it was really important that it wouldn’t be a depressing kitchen sink drama. We wanted to make a colourful film that also captures youth and Jade’s view of life.”
Polak and her casting team looked for a real-life burn survivor to potentially play Jade, though they were unconfident of finding someone comfortable with performing the material at all, let alone excelling with it. They eventually found Vicky Knight, a healthcare worker with no prior acting experience, whose own scars came from a childhood pub fire tragedy in 2003.
Acting in Dirty God was, in a way, a difficult re-living of Knight’s own recovery experience. Dealing with certain emotions at the age she was at the time of her own injuries meant she never really grappled with them: “My accident happened when I was eight years old, so I didn’t really deal with the feelings and emotions – my mum did. As a kid, you aren’t going to understand what’s happened to you and why it’s happened to you, you just go along with it.”
Although Dirty God is her acting debut, Knight had an unpleasant previous experience with reality television: “I was in a stupid programme that absolutely humiliated me. They approached me and said they wanted someone with burns to show how they live their life day in and day out. I agreed to do it and we filmed across about six to eight months, and it turned out to be this dating programme. Two weeks before it aired on TV, they emailed me and said: ‘Thanks for playing your part. It’s going to be called Too Ugly for Love.’ They lied, basically. And then they later came back to me and said: ‘Oh, we really want you in the programme The Undateables.’ I sent them a massive complaint.”
Understandably shaken by the programme, which, among other deceptions, also apparently misrepresented her sexual orientation in its framing, Knight was hesitant to respond to repeated attempts at email contact from Lucy Pardee, one of Dirty God’s casting directors. “It took about a year for me to finally answer her,” Knight says. “I did a self-tape, then I met Sacha, and then we built this friendship. When it came to doing scenes, I knew I could trust her, and I knew I could go to her if I wasn’t happy with something, especially since some of the scenes are very close to my heart. I’ve brought a lot of my own feelings and emotions to Jade, so some of the scenes were really hard for me to do, and I did get really upset with some of them, but I knew I could. I knew that wasn’t a problem for me to get upset. I didn’t have to hide those feelings when I had before.”
“When we wrapped,” continues Knight, “Sacha and [producer] Marleen Slot gave me a photo album and every one of the crew, from the English to the Dutch to the Moroccan, had all written something that they liked about me, and there were loads of stills taken during filming. I’ve got that to keep, so when I’m having a bad day, I just read from it and I know that I’m loved.”
Should there be opportunities for her, Knight hopes to continue in the field of acting: “I’m more than happy to do anything; I’m looking forward to what comes next. Before I did the film, I didn’t want to live with it anymore. I’d gotten to the point where it got to me so much that I gave up. When Sacha approached me, and I’ve said it to her many times, she saved my life. Without doing this film, I would still be in that situation. I hated myself and thought I was ugly, but now I can say I’m proud of my scars and that my scars are a piece of art. I love them.”
Knight shares that she hopes the themes of self-love, courage and belief that anything’s possible, regardless of “whether you’ve got a disfigurement or a disability”, are what viewers take from the film. “I love Vicky’s message,” Polak adds. “And for me, I love films that can touch you in a way where you take them with you for the rest of your life; that touch you in a way that’s maybe not evident at the first impression. I hope that people take this film with them in that way.”