“Dirty God” is an incredibly beautiful film. It contains moments that are gut-wrenching, but also heartwarming at the same time. This dichotomy drew me deeper into the character of Jade, who became a burn victim after her ex-boyfriend threw acid in her face. As I learned from my interview with the Dutch filmmaker Sacha Polak, this is a common act committed against women in the UK. In 2017, the number jumped to 465 attacks against women.
Set in London, Sacha’s first English film features Vicky Knight in an impactful performance as Jade. Vicky is a burn victim in real life. Sacha was looking for a burn victim to play this character, and having Vicky play Jade was important to her. “I wanted the audience to feel the skin Jade lives in,” she noted.
“Dirty God” comes to select theaters on 11/13, and on demand 12/15.
REBECCA MARTIN: What brought you to this project?
SACHA POLAK: Newspaper articles came out about girls committing suicide after nude photos had been put online. One stood out to me about a Norwegian girl who took revenge after her ex had put nude photos of her online by putting even more nude photos online herself. Other articles were related to the different acid attacks that have taken place in England. Katie Piper’s attack is one of the more infamous cases. And on the other side, a girl threw acid into her best friend’s face out of jealousy. Another story in 2013 was of two English girls who went to Zanzibar to do voluntary work and they got acid thrown into their faces by men passing them by on a moped. All of these stories inspired the story of “Dirty God”, along with my collaboration with my co-writer Susanne Farrell.
MARTIN: How did you find Vicky Knight for the role as Jade?
POLAK: We approached Lucy Pardee for the casting. She also did the casting for “American Honey”, and she is a star when it comes to finding the right non-actors. Through ASTI, Lucy and I met several different girls with burns, along with connecting with Katie Piper and Changing Faces.
Vicky’s background is very similar to Jade’s; she comes from the same neighbourhood and she too lacks a father figure in her life. She was in a fire, and two of her cousins died in that fire. Vicky was the sole survivor. The trauma and the incident is different, but “a burn is a burn,” as she says.
Vicky has television experience. She appeared in a program called ‘Too ugly for love’, some kind of dating show. They hadn’t told Vicky the title of the programme in advance. Afterwards she received horrible emails, and nasty things were written about her online. Even with all of that, it didn’t keep her from being very enthusiastic about participating in our film. While casting, she turned out to possess an incredibly natural way of acting and a fantastic charisma on screen.
The rehearsal process was a long process. We started taking dancing lessons together because she needed to dance. This helped in opening her up. I also taught her how to swim. Every week we went swimming. We became very close and still are.
MARTIN: I think now more than ever we need films like “Dirty God” that normalize stigmatized conditions. How important was it for you to find an actor who is a burn survivor for this role?
POLAK: Very important. I wanted the audience to feel the skin Jade lives in. I’ve considered Jade a heroine right from the start. She is someone who has an emboldened attitude to life. She has no option but to accept what is in front of the mirror. She regards her situation with humour and an armour of aggression.
“Dirty God” is a film about a young mother who lost herself in a terrible accident, but who eventually in the search of her identity learns to accept herself.
What sticks in my mind is that all the women I’ve met who got burned were forced to find a way to come to terms with their new appearance. Whichever path they chose and however they did or did not manage, it was their path. What is universal about it, is that for each and every one of us it is challenging to be confronted with feelings of external beauty versus internal dignity. A challenge for every woman in the world.
MARTIN: What’s the meaning behind the film’s title, “Dirty God”?
POLAK: The idea is that everybody deserves a good God. Jade has the feeling that her God is punishing her. I think people can sometimes relate to that feeling.
MARTIN: Watching the film, I could see influences from filmmakers like Andrea Arnold (“Fish Tank”, “American Honey”), and Lynne Ramsay (“Ratcatcher”, “Morvern Callar”), because of the rawness of the characters. To what extent would you consider these filmmakers an inspiration?
POLAK: I am a huge admirer of Lynne Ramsey and Andrea Arnold.
MARTIN: Our readers are mostly emerging female filmmakers. What advice would you give female filmmakers just starting out?
POLAK: The advice I would have for all filmmakers is try to be yourself, follow your heart, and be brave!