Capsule Review – Dirty God (Sydney Film Fest 2019)

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A film with such a story like this can be quite problematic in terms of representation, if executed poorly. Without the proper precautions and poor filmmaking, the storytelling can undermine the verisimilitude, plausibility and the messages of the story; as well as be offensive to those who expect to relate to the premise. Fortunately, director Sacha Polak manages to avoid most of those trappings for her English-language feature debut, Dirty God, thanks to her keen sense of empathetic storytelling and a striking acting debut from Vicky Knight (who has an affliction similar to the protagonist), as our lead character Jade.

Hinting that director Polak isn’t one to hold back on the problems of Jade’s situation, the film opens with a montage of widescreen close-ups of acid-damaged flesh. With the framework of the story revolving around Jade’s entrance back into society and her pursuit of happiness, we see all the obstacles she goes through. Obstacles like the discrimination and her inner turmoil that she experiences and Polak establishes them into the narrative quite well.

Whether it is about Jade’s commitment to her daughter, her lack of self-esteem due to her life-changing affliction (shown in a great sequence involving Jade dancing in happiness, while wearing a niqab), her post-traumatic stress of the attack she experienced (shown through dream sequences and a courtroom sequence), reigniting old flames of friendships and more (notably her mother, played by Katherine Kelly; Shami and Naz, played by Rebecca Stone and Bluey Robinson respectively) or desperately seeking attention she once had (via webchat videos), director Polak and Knight’s resilient performance (Jade is a character that is extremely sympathetic, if quite maddening) makes all the threads work effectively.

That’s not to say that the film is entirely effective. Since the film lasts 104 minutes, some of the story strands do lack development (like how the attack has effected her psychologically) or are unbelievable in their inclusion (like the subplot involving Jade working at a call centre to save money for cosmetic surgery expenses over in Morocco). But overall, Dirty God is an emotionally stirring film that manages to affect due to its commitment to true representation and simple storytelling.


 

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