Content warning: This interview discusses suicide and mental health issues.
The British TV show Skins was my entry to the new film Dirty God; a similar vibe to the Bristol based show but more Born-Again-Fat-Segal self-rediscovery tale. In Dirty God, Vicky Knight plays Jade, an acid attack survivor wrangling her life together — physically and emotionally — after the incident. She lives in a London housing complex with her mother, just one of many hurdles she faces as she recovers from her attack. Knight herself lives with more than 30% of permanently scarred skin making the film feel all the more real. And, instead of euphoria timed to MGMT, Dirty God pits Sevdaliza’s spooky trip-hop with long takes of swirling and glistening skin. The result? An uplifting experience of a woman turning her body into art.
Initially sceptical about acting, Knight once lived in shame of her scars (the pub fire that broke out when she was little damaged her and killed her two cousins). Images in Dirty God range from naturalistic to realist – melancholic dance sequences at home are contrasted with the court hearing of Jade’s attacker. A quick Google search reveals the U.K actually has one of the highest rates of acid attacks per capita.
Dirty God is a social-extremist films whereby someone unconventional-looking explores their outer and inner beauty to electronic music – and Dutch director Sacha Polak feels like no stranger to films that mine female journeys for deeper truths about humanity. Dirty God plays out like a cranked up metaphor for beauty, self-worth, courage, and sexuality.
Tucked in a make up room in Sydney’s State Theatre, I spoke to director Sacha Polak and star Vicky Knight about tattoos, music, therapy, and making survivor films.
André Shannon: I was watching the film and the first thing I thought about was ‘oh my god this is Skins’. And then I found out how old you are Vicky and thought that maybe you’d seen Skins, then I realised the film is about someone who’s survived an attack on their skin…
Vicky Knight: I’ve never watched Skins before to be honest (laughs)
AS: What! So Skins wasn’t a reference or an inspiration at all?
Sacha Polak: I don’t even know what that is.
AS: Scratch that then. What’s it like to make a film that has a deeply felt purpose and meaning?
SP: It’s been emotional. At Q and As we have people crying and telling their own stories and asking Vicky for advice.
AS: What about during production?
VK: I was very depressed and suicidal before doing the film, I didn’t feel like a human, I felt like a creature, blamed all my scars for causing so much pain over the years. When I watched the film for the first time, all these thoughts went out of my head and I thought ‘well, I’m not different to anyone else.’ I’m so proud of my scars; they’re a work of art! They’re mine.
AS: Do you feel like the film was, like, ‘your purpose’?
VK: The way it’s changed my life, I can’t describe it… I think it’s become like therapy for me. Talking about my story and sharing it with the world is a dream come true. I never thought I’d pick myself up. Being given this opportunity saved my life.
SS: It’s always therapy in a way! I think every film is a chapter in your life. It takes so long to make a film, I don’t even remember what it was like when we started.
AS: What kind of music were you playing on set? EDM?
VK: No, it was more like John Mayer music. And you know what? Yesterday when we were walking towards the stage it was playing in the background! I turned to Sach and said ‘this is crazy, we had this playing every morning!’
AS: Why does that surprise me?
SS and VK: (laughs)
AS: My real music question is about the use of Dutch-Iranian musician Sevdaliza. She makes a lot of music about morphing your body and your identity.
SS: I just love her music! I think she’s a phenomenal artist. I think she will be worldly famous. I fell in love with her music and then I found out she is Dutch as well. The soundtrack of the film is a combination of UK grime artists and Dutch artists. Finding the music was very fluid. When I’m working on a film everything I need is a question of ‘Is it right for the film, or not?’. Everything! Constructing music, image, poetry; with Sevdaliza I found her and thought ‘this is perfect for the opening’. My partner (Rutger Reinders) composed the rest of the score and he just put all this electronica over it. We travelled half a year throughout Europe in a camper van and he had a synthesiser in a camper before we shot the film.
AS: I was attracted to the theme in the film of ‘children not seeing physicality, only feeling affection’. Is the film speaking for adults who are prejudiced?
SS: I always felt like these themes of external beauty versus internal dignities is a theme for everyone in the world – things that people struggle with. Motherhood, as well.
AS: Did you feel like you were making an activist film?
VK: The reaction we’ve had – and we’ve had people that haven’t got burns or have got mental health issues – they ask me for advice! To hear these stories and how people have been moved is something I didn’t expect. Last night there was a lady who came up to me who hadn’t seen the film yet and she was just thanking us for making a film about this subject – just crying!
AS: Can I ask about your tattoos while having scars on your skin?
VK: Yeah! The good thing about having scars is that you don’t feel the pain of having a tattoo.
AS: At all? Really?
VK: No! So the swallow tattoo — I had it done after we wrapped because it’s a symbol of freedom and I feel free now. I feel like I’m not suffocating with these scars anymore. And, the smiley face I had done already so Sacha put them in the film. The ones on my fingers I did myself when I was drunk. I’ve got a few quotes on my body that relate to my life.
AS: Do tattoo artists get confused with how to do them on you?
VK: I’ve had a few tattoo artists who can’t do it, but then I think ‘why not, it’s just skin!’.
AS: I did want to ask what it’s like to do the nude scenes. How do you get into the mind space of being naked and acting out intimacy?
VK: We had a lot of fun with it. We practiced. I’m gay and I’m not used to men, I’ve never had an intimate relationship with a man. So it was difficult for that part. With Bluey [Robinson] who plays Naz, I thought ‘what do I do?’ (laughs). I think it looks amazing in the film – not dirty, or like a slag sort of thing.
AS: Fuck people.
SS: You just need to have trust – that’s most important. And then together you can have something beautiful. If you don’t have that trust it will be very difficult and you will shoot ugly scenes, I think. That was clear from the beginning of this film.
AS: What’s something you hoped the film wouldn’t communicate?
VK: (pauses) I’ve had a few people come up to me about the title [and say] ‘it’s a bit harsh’. I don’t want people to see it as a racial insult to God. It’s not: that’s my own personal view.
SS: I think, for me, this film did many beautiful things. In the film, there’s a very mixed group of people. Making the [acid] attacker a person of colour was something that I thought a lot about – if I do it that way it would be balanced with the boy she loves, who’s [also] a person of colour. The mother steals, and the best friend is a ‘bitch’; all people have good and bad sides to them. I hope people see it as that because that’s very important to me.
VK: The message I want this film to give people is that giving up is never an option. I almost did and I wouldn’t be here talking to you if I did. It’s just incredible the way that the film has changed my life.
Dirty God played at the Sydney Film Festival 2019.
André Shannon is a Sydney-based queer filmmaker and film critic. André co-hosts many podcasts at FBi 94.5 and his Twitter is @andreshannonfr.