Vicky Knight smiles, shakes my hand and sits down to talk. But she doesn’t remove her coat. It is a spring day and the cafe is warm, yet she leaves her parka zipped to the neck.
Knight is the star of Dirty God, the new feature film from the Dutch director Sacha Polak. She plays Jade, a young mother who is the victim of an acid attack perpetrated by an ex-boyfriend. In the opening scene, we are witness to widescreen closeups of Knight’s scarred body. Her skin is shot to resemble the surface of Mars, all ridges and rivulets, craters and pocks.
Shooting those closeups was a challenging – and extremely personal – experience for Knight, for they are bound up with a traumatic, life-changing event. On the evening of 27 July 2003, when she was eight years old, Knight had fallen asleep alongside her sister and cousins in the flat above a lock-in at the Prince of Wales, a pub in Stoke Newington, London, that her grandfather owned. It is unclear how the fire started, or by whom; Knight’s aunt who helped run the pub, Kate Knight, was found not guilty at a trial that went to the Old Bailey.
Knight recalls how one of the pub’s regulars, a local plumber called Ronnie Springer, had rushed into the blaze. He managed to break his way into the locked flat above the pub and lowered Vicky and her sister from a top-floor window.
She can remember Springer shouting “It’s too hot” as he tried to save her cousins, Christopher and Charlie. They would both die as a result of the blaze, as would Springer, from his burns, six weeks later. Knight spent three months in hospital, undergoing multiple skin grafts and related operations.
“I’ve hidden my scars for 15 years, and I’ve been called a monster for 15 years,” says Knight, now 23 and living in Dagenham, east London. “So, to be able to have a camera so close … I had breakdowns on set. I gave up, nearly, because I didn’t see the point in those shots.”
Dirty God is not just Knight’s first film, but the first time she has acted – normally she works as a healthcare assistant at Broomfield hospital in Chelmsford, caring for people in the same burns unit in which she spent a great deal of her childhood.
“I had no expectations at all going on set,” she says. “Going on a shoot with a big crew and cast, and then having to go back 15 years into my own experiences – it was hard, so difficult, you know? To be honest with you, I didn’t know which way it was going to go, what was going to come out of it.”
What was it like to watch the film for the first time? “I was very nervous,” she says. “There’s a lot of nudity in the film. I can imagine, for any actress, it’s hard to be naked. But more than a third of my body is burned. So for me to masturbate in front of the crew … it was a bit degrading. I felt degraded.”
Polak organised a private screening for Knight and her family. “When I saw it on the screen I was like ‘wow’,” Knight says. “It doesn’t look dirty. It doesn’t look disgusting. It was an artwork. I realised I was a piece of art.”
At that, Vicky reaches for her zip. The parka slips from her shoulders and is thrown on the seat beside her. She leans towards me and I look at the tattoos on her arms: a swallow in flight on the inside of her forearm; the word “karma” written down her thumb; an emoji-like smiley face on her middle finger. She talks me through them. “I got that one when I was drunk,” she says. “And that one too.”
But the swallow was inked after the film wrapped. “The film has helped me so much, I can’t express it,” she says. Before the movie, Knight had tried to live a normal life, but the fire kept scarring her, again and again, through people’s reactions.
“I was bullied a lot at school,” she says. “I got lighters in my face, fags waved around near me. I got beaten up. I’ve been called Freddy Krueger I don’t know how many times.”
It was a college teacher who suggested Knight make a video that might try to explain what had happened to her. She made a five-minute film on her iPad and uploaded it to Facebook and YouTube. “It went viral,” she says.
Soon after the video appeared, Knight was contacted by a London production company. “They said to me: ‘We want to work with someone with burns to see how they cope with it.’ I agreed to do it. We filmed for a very long time, and it turned out to be a dating programme called Too Ugly for Love.” She says she was only told the title of the show a week before it went on TV. Despite the fact that she is gay, the show required her to pretend to go on a date with a man. After it aired, Knight was trolled online. “I had grown adults telling me I was disgusting,” she says. “I emailed the production company, and I got a response: ‘We would like you to go on a new show called The Undateables.’”
Knight’s video was also seen by Lucy Pardee, a casting director renowned for her ability to find non-professional performers from beyond the established film industry and the agencies and drama schools that conveyor-belt the pedigree talent.
“When Lucy contacted me, I was like: ‘No way, I’m not doing it. I’m not interested in anything,’” Knight says. “It took a whole year for her to get in contact with me. She was on at me on every social media – even email. She rang me on an unknown number one day and I answered and she said: ‘I’ve finally got to speak to you!’ I was like: ‘Oh my God, this crazy woman, what do you want?’”
Despite Knight’s concerns, Pardee managed to arrange a meeting. Soon after, Polak flew to London and travelled to Dagenham.
“I immediately fell for her,” the 36-year-old Polak says on a phone call from her home in Amsterdam. “We bonded really quickly.” The pair went to dance lessons together. Knight had never learned to swim due to her injuries, so the pair went to swimming lessons at a local pool.
“She’s a very funny and very caring person, with a great working attitude,” Polak says. “And she’s a fantastic actress. She can turn her hand to anything she wants. But the shoot was tough for her. We had ups and downs. She put more hours in than anyone. She would get angry or emotional in some of the scenes. But then she would make everyone smile. She made it a special experience because she was so overwhelmed by it, but then made it her own. We speak all the time now. I feel really committed to her.”
Polak has worked on this film – her English-language debut – for more than seven years. She recalls how a fleeting moment at Lowlands, a music festival held every summer to the east of Amsterdam, was a pivotal moment of inspiration. Polak found herself staring at a young woman in the crowd who had burn marks across her face. When their eyes met , Polak instinctively looked away. She started to notice other people in the crowd doing the exact same thing. “I realised you’re never allowed to forget having such an injury,” Polak says. “Because people keep staring.”
Polak began to meet with burns survivors. She visited the Katie Piper Foundation, a charity dedicated to burns rehabilitation, and set up by the model Katie Piper, herself an acid attack survivor. “I met loads of young girls with burns,” she says. “I was just trying to learn from them.”
As Polak continued her research, acid attacks started to appear in the news. London, where the film is set, had 465 cases in 2017, and CNN dubbed the city the “world capital for acid attacks”.
Polak notes how the majority of such attacks are directed towards young women. “What struck me is how acid is so often thrown into a woman’s face,” she says. “It seems to be an act of vengeance.” A survivor told Polak: “He was saying to me: ‘If you refuse to be beautiful for me, I won’t let you be beautiful for anybody.’”
Dirty God explores this knotted psychology brilliantly. We never see the attack. Indeed, the ex-boyfriend attacker is seen for only a fleeting moment, manacled in the dock as he is sentenced to a long stay in prison. But his presence is felt throughout the film. Trying to still her mind on the dance floor of a night club, Jade imagines her ex approaching through the crowd. He also appears in her dreams in the form of a black-feathered bird. In one scene, they are on a beach, and his body is on top of hers. He is holding her down, but not violently. They could as easily be about to have sex. These are nightmares, but they are also fantasies.
Herein is the heart of the film. It unflinchingly explores how, despite the evilness of his act, Jade’s attacker still has a hold over her. And that hold is as intimate as it is violent. She wants him put away, but she still longs to be seen by him.
This is new ground for film. Over many decades, scars have been used as a visual trope for evil and villainy. Forget for a second films as crass as A Nightmare on Elm Street, with its scarred serial killer, Freddy Krueger; the issue spans classic characters from the titular Phantom of the Opera through to Star Wars’ Darth Vader, from Lion King’s Scar to Batman’s Joker or Two Face. (The British Film Institute, to give it its due, recently pledged not to fund films where facial scarring is used to represent immorality, with Dirty God cited as an inspiration.)
“I grew up asking my mum why people with burns were bad,” Knight says. “If someone watches a movie and then sees someone on the street with a facial scar, they’re going to think that person’s done something wrong. In fact, they’ve probably been in a terrible accident.”
Knight still dreads Halloween, an annual fixture for body-horror films to play in cinemas while youths cavort around with burn-effect makeup. “If I dressed up as a cancer patient for Halloween, I’d have my teeth knocked out,” she points out. “So why are burns OK?”
These days, Knight has a new, more enjoyable set of challenges to deal with: the demands of launching a major feature film. After our interview, she is heading into Soho to have a meeting with an agent. In between night shifts at the hospital, she has travelled extensively – across Europe, to Turkey, Morocco and the US – to promote the film. It looks set to be big. Dirty God opened the Rotterdam film festival in January before being selected for the World Cinema Dramatic Competition at the Sundance film festival. It is now getting a major release in the UK and across Europe.
As for what comes next, Knight says: “I don’t like to get my hopes up, because I’ve been dropped so many times in the past.” “If the film does well or whatever, then bonus. But I’d love to be an actress, and if I get the opportunity to do more films, I’m going to try and take it straight away.”
Knight is smart enough to know the UK film industry is not the most welcoming, inclusive or progressive of industries.
“In the beginning, I was asking: ‘Can I carry on doing this, because of the stigma, and because I have a distinctive look,” she says. “I thought I’d only be good for horror movies and things like that. But my producer said: ‘Vicky, don’t talk shit. Directors these days want people with disfigurements and disabilities in their movies.’”
Either way, one gets the impression making this film has had a transformative effect on Knight’s outlook. Her Instagram was once full of self-portraits smoothed out and Disneyfied by Snapchat filters. Now she shows herself as she is – a survivor of violence and tragedy, and an immensely powerful, talented woman.
“Before Sacha came along, I had pretty much given up,” she admits. “I was self-harming. I was sleeping all the time. I wasn’t going to work. I was suicidal. The only support I’ve had since the fire was from my mum. Without her, I wouldn’t be as strong as I am. We have never had professional help, ever. So doing this, it’s given me another window to look out. I see myself as a human now, and not as a monster. I love my scars. Look, there are different patterns in them.”
She stretches her arms towards me. “I want people to look at me now. I want people to ask me about them. I think they tell a story.”
I look, and agree. They do indeed tell a story. It’s one worth listening to.
Dirty God is released in cinemas on 7 June.
• In the UK, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123 and the domestic violence helpline is on 0808 2000 247. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is on 13 11 14 and the national family violence counselling service is on 1800 737 732. In the US, the suicide prevention lifeline is 1-800-273-8255 and the domestic Violence hotline is 1-800-799-SAFE (7233). Other international helplines can be found at www.befrienders.org