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Dutch filmmaker Sacha Polak was at a music festival a few years ago when she noticed a young woman with facial scarring, writes Geoffrey Macnab.  "I just saw everybody looking at her and looking away," Polak remembers.

"I felt so bad for her. She could not hide from this. That was the first idea for a new film, just thinking about how important the face is for communication and how it is your identity."

Now, Polak has drawn on the memory of the scarred woman for her first English-language dramatic feature Dirty God. The film, which has its world premiere as IFFR opener before going on to Sundance Competition, was largely shot in London's Hackney. It tells the story of Jade, a young mother disfigured by an acid attack. Her face is reconstructed but her beauty (she thinks) has gone. When she gets out of the hospital, she struggles to re-establish herself and to deal with the narcissism of social media and the fickleness of old friends. Worse, she thinks that her own daughter regards her as a monster.

"Together, we started interviewing young women with facial scarring," Polak recalls. They were put in touch with these women through charities, The Katie Piper Foundation and Changing Faces. "I heard some stories about these acid attacks. At that time, there weren't as many as recently but I immediately thought it was such a dramatic thing. A lot of it had to do with (the idea) that if you are not beautiful for me, you are not beautiful for anyone."

Polak was able to draw on the expertise of Lucy Pardee, casting director on all of Andrea Arnold's films and an expert at street casting of unknowns. Pardee had discovered a video posted online by Vicky Knight, a young woman who had been a burns victim herself. Pardee tried to contact Knight but, at first, couldn't get a response. A few years before, Knight had been approached to appear on TV but had then felt betrayed by the producers when she discovered the programme they wanted her for was a sleazy dating show called 'Too Ugly For Love'.

Eventually, Pardee won Knight's trust and brought her to Polak's attention. Jade was a tough role to play. As Polak explains, the actress had to have the right background, be the right age and to be open to the film's frank depiction of the character's sex life. "There are not that many girls who would fit this profile but we found Vicky."

Polak has shown her ability to spot new talent before, casting the then unknown Hannah Hoekstra in her debut feature Hemel . She sees Knight as a young actor with similar potential.

Yes, Polak acknowledges, working in the UK was different from making a film in the Netherlands. Financing Dirty God was itself a challenge. The BFI had never before invested in a Dutch film but boarded the project at script stage. BBC Films also came on board, a considerable relief given that no Dutch broadcaster was ready to support the film. Polak, though, pays tribute to the Netherlands Film Fund, which has supported her throughout her career, and to its CEO, Doreen Boonekamp. "I think she's wonderful and she really stuck her neck out for this film."

Dirty God has its first screening in Rotterdam on Wednesday January 23. The next day, Polak flies off to Sundance for the US premiere. This is the first Dutch title to have been selected for World Cinema Dramatic Competition at the celebrated festval in Utah. "I am really, really excited to go there...I have no idea what kind of festival it is, just that I expect it to be really cold!" the director says of what will be her first trip to Park City.

SEE NL Magazine #34 November 2019 / Sundance, IFFR, Berlin and Clermont Ferrand issue
SEE NL is published four times per year by Eye International and The Netherlands Film Fund and is distributed to international film professionals.

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