There were a disquieting number of films at this year’s Sydney Film Festival which sought to elucidate on the subjects of violence and, more specifically, violence against women.

Fairly and tragically a reflection of real life circumstances past and present and the influence of movements such as #MeToo, in a Festival selection beset by unnecessary controversies and ill-considered depictions of the matter, Dirty God showed us how well it can be done.

Not emerging as the best film in the Official Competition but for the quality return on investment far and above its contemporaries, in Dirty God we join Jade, a young British woman and mother; only just discharged from hospital following the first stages of treatment for a brutal acid attack by her former partner that left her with scars on her face and body.

Played by first time feature performer Vicky Knight, the actress, who suffered burns to her body at the age of eight, deserves enormous credit for imparting such an emotive, duly complex performance in of all things her debut. Given her experience with other production companies it’s commendable that she agreed to be such an essential part of another if vastly more worthy project.

Moreover, that which she evinces, including several intimate sequences, are not of the like which every performer would be comfortable with, including those performers (and statedly in Knight’s case at least at the outset) who in such course would be required to show the type of scars which are routinely absent from cinema.

Filmmakers are regularly reticent to put performers front and centre who don’t confirm to certain conceptions of what is attractive or not, while scarring has always been callous shorthand for ‘bad guy’ or character imperfections; a great and very personal frustration of this author. Commencing the film with closeups of Jade’s scarring, Director Sacha Polak refrains from lingering on her lead in a gratuitous or unnecessary form; instead emphasising the impact of the crime on the victim and the steps taken readjusting to life.

There could also have been a great temptation on behalf of any filmmaker to depict Jade as a wholly sympathetic character given her circumstance. Thankfully, this is not the case and we are proffered a welcomely multi-dimensional character. The evident contention of Dirty God is that persons affected by that which Jade undergoes are people just like everyone else and while their circumstances do merit particular support and care they deserve to be treated like everyone else.

To this end, Jade, just like everyone else, can be a pretty lousy person and if not for this dynamic we would never have had near so interesting a film.

One of the best sequence in Dirty God is a fleeting encounter that takes place outside Jade’s work. Burping in a passer-by’s face, the man turns, implicitly notices Jade’s appearance and makes the decision, rather than say anything, to keep walking. It’s a wordless, brilliant summation of a movie so well elucidating on how societies impulsively relate to those in Jade’s position and how multifaceted those individuals are who, given aspects of their appearance, are regretfully singularly characterised. 

Dirty God likewise does well to cover upheavals in Jade’s conception of herself as she too, apparently used to late nights out with her friends partying, perceives and contends with changes in the reactions of those around her and shifts in her own life following the attack. Turning to the film’s treatment of violence and Jade’s abuser, it’s notable that his presence features very little in the film and then predominantly near it’s commencement during a largely procedural court scene.

Polak statedly chose not to make a film that elaborates on him but moreover on Jade’s experience and fairly the essential and significant focus in any like circumstance. There is nothing wrong with portraying violence on film but there are right ways to do it; sometimes that means choosing which violence to depict or not depicting it explicitly. In a Festival featuring films with gratuitous depictions of violence against women and violence too unnecessary to the extent that it occurs wholly extraneous to the plot or the proceedings that ensue, Polak came along and demonstrated that you can outline true to life, impactful recreations of violence without recreating it at all.

While there is violence in this film and specifically violence against Jade, the main act of violence which is the subject of Dirty God is not featured in flashback form or otherwise. The impact is to, appropriately, emphasise the effects of violence and necessary empathy with the victim rather than the violence itself or what in the hands of another filmmaker could have been some lurid illustration thereof. 

An excellent feature, Dirty God is still not without it’s faults. The fantastical sequences concerning Jade’s abuser, if evidently meant to connote Jade’s ever-decreasing yet still emotional attachment to him, feature the figure with the type of costuming that might only arise in a fantasy sequence. The meaning apparent, the rendering does not measure up to the thematic impact, with the clothing serving as a garish distraction rather than imparting anything over and above that which would have remained thematically resonant absent the costume’s presence.

The conclusion shoehorns in a hurried about-turn in tone which, if optimistic, clashes with the evincing of near all else that transpires while a very blatant ‘roll credits’ moment where the term ‘Dirty God’ is mentioned needlessly takes us out of the environment of the film as if the title somehow needed to be in there.

Best of all for Knight’s performance and the thoughtful depiction of violence and it’s impact, Dirty God’s presence at this year’s Sydney Film Festival and in the Official Competition no less, amidst several less considered approaches to the subjects it pursues, was more than welcome.

Dirty God had it’s Australian premiere as part of the Sydney Film Festival and screens as part of the Melbourne International Film Festival on August 10 at 1:30PM at the Sofitel Melbourne and August 17 at 4PM at Kino

See here for our interview with Dirty God Director Sacha Polak and Star Vicky Knight

on Falkenscreen