Interviews

"I want people to see the scars."

Dirty God, Sacha Polak’s emotional portrait of a young woman covered in scars after an acid attack cuts deep. With its world premiere scheduled for the opening of IFFR 2019 and a competition slot at the Sundance Film Festival, Polak has every reason to celebrate: “I’m so proud to be doing this with my lead Vicky Knight.”
Written by Hugo Emmerzael

All those furrows, folds and lines make it seem like a landscape. During the opening scenes of Dirty God,the camera glides across Jane’s body in extreme close-up. It’s like watching footage from a new planet. However, these alien associations soon enough make way for a mundane, yet incredibly profound, contemporary story: a young woman learning to accept her new appearance. Jade (a fabulous debut from Vicky Night) has been the victim of an acid attack. The burns are healed, but the (emotional) scars will be apparent for a long time.

Pretty again

Following Hemel (2012) and Zurich (2015), Dutch director Sacha Polak again draws upon a woman’s inner life on her way to self-discovery and acceptance. “The starting point for this film was someone with burns on her face,” Polak explains in the atmospheric bar of arthouse theatre KINO in Rotterdam, a mere two weeks before the opening of the 48thIFFR. She continues: “In comparison to men, I feel women are quicker to be judged on the basis of their appearance. It made perfect sense to shoot a film about a young woman that wants to feel pretty again.”

Polak was actually working on another project when she started talking to burn victims in the United Kingdom with this idea in mind. “It’s a weirdly British problem,” Polak recalls about her research process. “A high proportion of victims are women too. It has to do with the male perpetrators’ mentality. Their common frame of mind is: if you can’t be beautiful for me, I won’t let you be beautiful for anyone else”. The act of throwing the acid is similar to throwing a glass of water in someone’s face. A lot of men don’t even realise how grave the consequences of these actions can be.

Exploitation

However, Dirty God doesn’t expand upon the perpetrator’s motivations. He doesn’t get a platform at all. His horrific act of violence isn’t even filmed. Because that’s not this film’s point. Instead, Dirty God tenderly portrays how hard it is for Jade to learn to deal with the crime’s after-effects. This complex character is brought to life in an extremely vulnerable, yet incredibly confident performance by Vicky Knight, a young Brit in her first film role. What’s special about Knight is how closely her story resembles that of Jade. One third of her body was scarred at the age of eight when she was the victim of arson.

“Vicky is perfect for this film,” Polak agrees. “She added layers of vulnerability to this project.” However, it was hard though for Polak to convince Knight to go on set. Polak talks about why: “She was filmed before in England for a television programme that turned out to be a sleazy dating show about people with disabilities. Outright exploitation in other words.” So, the challenge for Polak was to utilise Vicky’s authenticity as the lead without exploiting her for the sake of the film. “That’s a huge responsibility for a filmmaker to bear. I promised both of us that I’d take care of her, even after the whole filming process was over. It was very important to me that Vicky was comfortable on set. That’s why she did auditions with the other actors. She needed to have that click to make it work.”

No quitter

That’s the feeling that lingers in Dirty God. This film is pure empathy, an exercise in compassion; and for the audience too. Along with Jade, they have to learn to see past her appearance to take the rest of her life into account: her deprived background, her cautious attempts at romance and her complicated relationship with her mother, grandmother and child. This can be tricky, considering the focus on Jade’s scars, which was important for Polak: “I want people to see them and deal with them emotionally.”

Despite her own scars, Knight still needed extra make-up. “She has the right looks,” Polak explains, “but in cinema you have to exaggerate a bit.” Coincidentally, it was at IFFR that Polak found the right make-up artist for the job. “I saw the harelips in Anders Thomas Jensen’s Men & Chicken and thought to myself: Morten Jacobsen, that’s the guy we need! Vicky and I flew to Copenhagen where he made an extension of Vicky’s scars. The make-up was demanding for Vicky. We started filming at six in the morning, but she had to be uptwo hours earlier for make-up. We were warned: even experienced actors hate it. There comes a moment where they just can’t take it anymore. Their skin rejects the make-up. It’s also draining emotionally. But Vicky was a trooper. She never complained. In real life she’s a healthcare assistant at a hospital. She’s no quitter.”

Romantic version of reality

You could say Vicky did the exact opposite: “She just went for it. Everything was new to her and she infused everything with this infectious energy. She enjoyed the work so much that some people who spend day in, day out on sets, started realising how special it actually is to shoot a film together”. That’s the thrilling energy you can feel in Dirty God, a film that isn’t just solemn seriousness. Polak and Knight also appreciate a party, which is reflected by awesome club scenes set in London and Morocco. Prompted about the prominent role of the pounding, dense and emotionally intense electronic soundtrack, Polak answers: “The film is a romanticised version of reality and the music reflects that.”

In some ways Jade’s life after the accident can be viewed as a romantic, new adventure. A new challenge for a resilient, bright person to reconsider her position in life. This is reflected in the Vicky’s real life who will now be joining Polak on a global adventure. First there will be the world premiere at the official opening of the 48thedition of IFFR. And after that there’s a flight to Sundance where Dirty God will be part of the official competition. “I’m so proud to be doing this with Vicky,” declares a beaming Polak. The kick-off at IFFR really means the beginning of a new adventure that can change the course of these women’s lives.

Photo in header: Filmmaker Sacha Polak