Reclaiming Truth

Sacha Polak’s Dirty God tells the story of young mother Jade (Vicky Knight), who after undergoing facial reconstruction following an acid attack that has led her down a path of self-destruction, must reclaim her life. In conversation with ASFF, Polak discusses drawing on Knight’s real-life experiences as a victim of an arson attack, and her pursuit of truth in fiction filmmaking. 

ASFF: Why did you choose filmmaking as a means of creative expression?
I don’t know – I think some things in your life, they just happen. My father and my stepmother were documentary filmmakers, and as a child I was always painting, writing and acting. So I always knew I wanted to do something creative, but I don’t actually remember the moment of making the decision to go to the film academy, or even applying – all of a sudden I was just in front of the door. 

ASFF: What space does Dirty God occupy in your body of work?
Each film teaches you lots of things, and with this, working in a different language and in a different country taught me a lot. The director of photography, Ruben Impens was also inspiring and important to this film.  My second feature had a dark ending, and for Dirty God I wanted to make this a positive feature. It was important to me that it wouldn’t be a kitchen sink drama with a girl who lives on an estate, and I really wanted to make it colourful, and have the music play an important part in it. 

ASFF: Having experienced what her character does in the film, Vicky as an actress has a visceral emotional understanding of these experiences. Why was this important to you?
It was always important that I would find a girl like Vicky with real scars. She did great, but it was really tough on her. We got to know each other quite early on because before we had any money, my producer and I stayed in youth hostels, as we didn’t know whether we could finance this film in the UK. We had started casting even before there was a real script or anything, and we found Vicky and her story influenced the writing. I hope the film translates her feelings because that was important, at least for me.

ASFF: Does narrative drama allow you to explore and present a sense of truth that a documentary would be unable to reveal? 
I think you are absolutely right. I made one documentary about my own mastectomy, and I’ve worked a lot with my father and stepmother on their documentaries. I always feel when you make a documentary and you stage things, or you have this beautiful shot, that you know it’s not true because you can’t have the perfect lighting, and find something honest there. That’s really difficult, and so I think with documentaries, it is almost just as honest as a fiction film. They are different crafts, but for me I’ve always thought it was difficult to work with real people and use their lives in a documentary way, whereas for a fiction film, you really make it together. 

ASFF: As a filmmaker, do you perceive there to be a transformative aspect to the filmmaking process, where it changes you personally?
SP:Definitely, but it takes such a long time to make a feature film. The first moment I thought of making this I was at a music festival, and I saw a young woman – a burns survivor. I looked at her and I looked away, and I saw everyone around me doing the same thing. I don’t even know when it was, but that girl stayed with me for a long time in my mind, and many things happened between that moment and where we are today. 

Dirty God opened Rotterdam Film Festival and premiered at Sundance, and following screenings at the Glasgow and Dublin Film Festivals, was released in the UK on 7 June. For more information, click here.

Paul Risker

1. Still from
Dirty God.