The third feature from Dutch director Sacha Polak, Dirty God is the clear product of a bold cinematic voice. A closely observed character study of a young British woman navigating life in the wake of an acid attack inflicted by her ex-partner, Dirty God brings to life her inner world in an empathetic and compelling way, handling themes of motherhood, self-acceptance and intimacy with intelligence and sensitivity. Central to the film is Vicky Knight’s captivating lead performance as Jade. A nurse in her daily life, and herself the survivor of a horrific fire in her childhood that left her scarred, Knight imbues her debut screen role with the wealth and depth of her own emotions and lived experience.
While in Sydney to present Dirty God at Sydney Film Festival as part of its Official Competition, I sat down with Sacha Polak and Vicky Knight to discuss the film and its reception.
Congratulations on the film, I think it’s an immense achievement for you both, as director and as performer. Vicky, how did you come to be involved in the film?
Vicky: A few years ago, I was in this horrible documentary that turned out to be a dating program. They humiliated me on TV, so when the casting director for Dirty God, Lucy Pardee, came to me, I was completely like, “No way, I’m not doing it.” It took her a whole year to convince me to be in contact with her. She called me on an unknown number, and she said what the script was going to be, and what the storyline was going to be about. The thing that convinced me to do it was that I was going to play a character, and not myself. So, I met up with her, we did a self-tape. Then Sacha came over from the Netherlands, and we made a movie from there!
You deliver such a fearless and intimate performance, that I think must have required a lot of trust and courage…
Vicky: It did, I mean, as soon as you meet someone, you aren’t going to trust them straight away. But, we [Sacha and I] built a really good relationship. We went swimming together – because I had to swim in the film, so she taught me how to swim. We did dancing lessons, saw a movement coach, we went out partying and to the cinema. We had a really good friendship before we even started filming, so the trust was built there. It was difficult to do, it wasn’t easy at all, because I had to relive my own experience.
I understand you were closely involved in the casting of the other characters, as well?
Vicky: I was auditioning with all the other cast.
Sacha: Everyone who auditioned for the film, she was always there.
Vicky: With Bluey Robinson, who plays Naz, I said to Sacha, “Well, I’m gay, but I will turn straight for him,” so I need him to play the love interest. And Rebecca Stone, who plays Shami, we had a really good audition and a good connection, and I said to Sacha, “We need this girl to play the friend.”
I thought you might have known each other in real life, it was a really believable friendship.
Vicky: No, no [laughs].
Sacha, in the Q&A last night you spoke about how acid attacks are quite common, and that much like the attack on Jade by her ex-partner in the film, it’s often motivated by vengeance, and the idea that “If you can’t be beautiful for me, I don’t want you to be beautiful for anyone else.” Can you speak about that theme in the film?
Sacha: At first, I thought I wanted it to be about a girl who inflicted the fire on herself, inflicted her own scars, and it would have been much more about guilt, and those kind of subjects. But when I came to London, I met lots of young burns survivors through the Katie Piper Foundation. Together with Susie [Susanne Farrell], the co-writer, we interviewed them about how they saw their love lives, how they saw everyday life, and if they thought they would find a new partner; or if they saw themselves reflected in a mirror of a shop, whether they would recognise themselves. But we also heard about these acid attacks happening, and we immediately thought, “This is a very important subject.” At that time, there weren’t as many, it sort of exploded in 2017, where there were around 480 that happened. It increased immensely, and I think right now a lot of charities are busy with making it not as easily available…
Vicky: They’ve actually changed the law in the UK now, that you have to have a license to even purchase any type of acid at all.
Hopefully that will help make a difference…
Sacha: The research I did showed that for the attacker, it was almost like throwing a glass of water in somebody’s face, you know, you’re not really conscious of what you’re doing in a way. It’s not like sticking a knife into somebody, it feels very different. And it has been insane, I mean I spoke to the girls that went to Zanzibar, they were there doing volunteer work, and two guys on a scooter drove past them, and it changed their life completely.
Is it often men doing it to women, is that the majority of cases?
Sacha: Well, not anymore, that’s happening a lot in India and Pakistan. But I think right now in the UK, it’s also gangs, or people just throwing it in clubs, so that’s really awful.
Vicky: There was an attack in a club, I think it was either last year or the year before. Some man just went in there and sprayed the whole crowd for no reason, there was no motivation behind it. There was even a three-year-old, the youngest example in the world I think, who was sprayed by his dad in a shopping centre. It’s crazy.
Jade attempts to get plastic surgery in Morocco, but is sadly subject to a scam. Is that something you’d found in your research, that had happened to other survivors?
Sacha: Not necessarily, but I mean we spoke a lot about finding a solution, and Vicky also went online to find doctors to help her. I think that was something more like… I also made a film about myself [New Boobs, 2013]. I had reconstructive surgery for my breasts, because I have the BRCA1 gene, the breast cancer gene. I went to look for the best doctor that I could find, who had a very long waiting list and didn’t want to help me at all. My documentary is a lot about that. I think that for Jade, it’s searching for a solution, and just not facing reality, and maybe already knowing unconsciously that it’s not going to work. People even tell her that it’s not going to work, her mother tells her it’s not going to work out. But you just put your hopes up.
Vicky: I was going to say that, with myself, my accident happened when I was eight. I was in a fire. I remember the doctors saying, “This could happen, and we could do this, but you have to wait.” And I didn’t want to wait, so I was emailing doctors all around the world, and of course they come back to you and say, “Yeah, we can do this, but you have to pay a certain amount of money.” So, you constantly hold onto that little bit of hope that they can change something, and then the reality hits you that it’s not going to work. But, I mean, obviously for a new burns survivor, they don’t know what it’s like.
The dialogue in the film felt very natural. What was the writing process like, and was there much room for improvisation on-set?
Sacha: Yeah, there are a lot of scenes that are improvised. I really love improvising on set, I try to keep things open, and especially in this film, where there’s a lot of slang. I mean, writing slang in a script – which was by me and Susie who’s from Ireland and was much older – it doesn’t really work. And these words change, of course. So, with Bluey and Rebecca and Vicky, we made the words into their own words, and changed things around. I don’t think Vicky ever knew her lines upfront….
Sacha: But, I mean, she gets it really quickly. That was the way we worked together, and we made it feel alive and fresh.
Vicky: Yeah, I never learned my lines on set.
It felt like your personality really came through…
Vicky: As I said in the beginning, it was difficult, but we had so much fun filming the whole thing. If I could do it again ten times over, I would. It became sort of like therapy for me. Before I did the film I was very depressed, very suicidal, I felt like a monster. I didn’t want to live with it anymore. And then Sacha gave me this opportunity and pretty much saved my life. So without doing this, I don’t think I would be here, to be honest. It’s quite heartwarming to think that two years ago I was in such a dark place, and now I just want to tell the world my stories.
It seems like you’ve had an incredible journey with the film already, premiering at the International Film Festival Rotterdam and going to Sundance. What was that experience like?
Vicky: Do you know what? I literally have no words, I’m in a bubble at the minute. It’s just going so well, and the reactions we’ve had have been so good. I really didn’t expect it to touch as many people as it did. I mean, even people who haven’t got burns. They might suffer from mental health issues, or know someone with a problem. There was a lady last night, she was really crying, and she hadn’t even seen the film yet. She was saying “Thank you so much for bringing this to the public’s attention.” I just thought, wow, one film can do this to someone. It’s really, really crazy.
The film is out in general release in the UK at the moment, does that mean a lot of your friends and family are seeing it?
Vicky: Yeah! I work in a hospital, I’m a nurse, and the messages I’ve been getting from people are like, “Wow!” As if they’ve been working with a film star [laughs].
Vicky: Yeah, I can’t wait to go back to work.
They should give you a promotion. Sacha, the mood reminded me a bit of Lynne Ramsay’s Morvern Callar, with the two female friends leaving the UK and travelling to a sunny Mediterranean resort. Was this an influence on the film, and were there other influences that you drew from?
Sacha: I love Morvern Callar, it’s one of my favourite films.
I love the tone of that film. I think for this film we had many inspirations. For me, it was very important that it didn’t feel like a gritty, dark kitchen sink drama in an estate, because it already is in an estate. For me, it was important to place it in that social class, because I think that money changes a lot, even if you don’t have burns, but if you do have burns then it’s even worse, you cannot get all the care in the world if you don’t have enough money. But I also didn’t want to make it dark and depressing. Ruben Impens [the DOP] and I, we really tried to make it as colourful as we could, and put a lot of humour and light in it. That was important. I think most of it was just finding pictures, for instance the sex scene, or the masturbation scene where Jade has projections on herself, we were just playing around, fooling around with projections. We even had maggots projecting on her face at a certain time. I was searching for a way to make that feel liberating and not dirty, and how to visualise that. So we were experimenting with those kind of things.
There was a definite sense of liberation in the film…
Vicky: It was quite funny actually doing those scenes. [Sacha] was laying under my bed, telling me, “Make circles here, do a line there.” It was really funny, but I’m glad I did it, to be honest. A lot of people were telling me, you know “This isn’t a porno, so don’t do it.” And I was just like, “I’m an actress, so you’ve got to give it your best shot.” And I did.
Coming from the Netherlands, were the club scenes in the film inspired by the club scene there?
Sacha: In the Netherlands? Not particularly… The first party in London is actually shot in London. It’s one of the only interiors that is really shot there.
Vicky: That house was falling apart. I nearly fell through the floorboards. It was like the most derelict house I’ve ever been in, and someone actually lived there. You have to see it to believe it, there were wires hanging out of the ceiling.
Sacha: And it smelled like gas.
Vicky: Yeah! There was a gas smell, and I thought it was going to explode. We had to have the fire brigade there, because they had to have a certain amount of people that could be upstairs, and a certain amount of people that could be downstairs. Then we went downstairs and they had a sex chamber. But that was a really good, fun scene to do. The way it’s portrayed in the film, you don’t see it being like that.
Sacha: It looks good, I think.
Vicky: I think it does – if I was invited to a party like that, I would definitely go.
The locations in the film were great. So the film was shot in multiple countries, in the UK and the Netherlands and Morocco. Is that something you’d do again?
Sacha: The part in the Netherlands, I hated doing it like that. When you work with non-actors, it was Bluey’s first film ever, and Rebecca’s first big film ever… You work with a lot of inexperienced young people, and you dream that you can do it in a chronological way. You always hear these stories [about other filmmakers], like Andrea Arnold, or whoever, who shoot it completely chronologically. I don’t see how, or how much money they have. But we didn’t have enough money for that, and shooting in London is very expensive. The first few days we were in London, and we were only shooting exteriors, from one door to the next door. And then, after that we went to the Netherlands, in Zaandam, which is on the outskirts of Amsterdam. We were in really small apartments for days.
Vicky: I think that was quite cool, actually. There was one toilet for 50 people.
Sacha: Yeah, it was awful!
You’d get to know each other in the line, I guess…
Vicky: I remember doing the dance scene, where I had the burka on. I was dancing for a good half-hour, and as soon as the music finishes, I collapsed on the floor and the whole house was cheering. It was the best feeling ever. That was probably one of the best scenes to film, it was so good. Can we do it again?
Sacha: Yeah, sure.
Thank you so much!