It’s a strange novelty to have so many positive things to say about a film that is centred around disfigurement. Historically, cinema’s treatment of this issue is shamelessly unsophisticated, often reducing people with variant faces and marginalised bodies into crass caricatures of villainy and tragedy. However, Dirty God is a complete breath of fresh air.
This film contains none of the usual mawkish affirmations or melodrama we’ve come to expect from stories exploring this subject matter. It has a nuanced understanding of the lived experience of disfigurement that is head and shoulders above any film I’ve seen.
From the very outset, it’s clear this film is something different. I was particularly struck by the boldness of the opening title sequence. It begins with a collection of extreme close-ups on Jade’s skin. In cinema, disfigurement is often deliberately withheld and then unveiled in a moment of melodrama, but here it is front and centre.
Her scars are beautifully lit and shot like an intricate landscape, allowing the audience the space to see and recognise the beauty of her scars.
Vicky Knight’s performance as Jade is wonderful. Her portrayal of a burns survivor feels incredibly authentic. I love that we get to see her character be so many things: a mother, a best friend, be funny, flawed, and have sexuality (something which is rarely covered when writing about disfigured lives).
We also get a glimpse into how disfigurement discrimination intersects with misogyny when an online interaction is turned into vile “slut-shaming”. Traditionally disfigurement is used to signify villainy or heroic tragedy. But in Dirty God, Jade is neither demonised nor lionised: she is human.
The decision to cast a burns survivor in this role is incredibly powerful. In an industry where disfigurement marginalisation is commonplace, casting an actor with burns to play a character with burns feels oddly radical. Also, it would be problematic for a film to explore the issue of disfigurement related exclusion and marginalisation without authentic casting.
You can’t really critique the exclusion of disfigured people by making a film that doesn’t include any. It would be like making a self-proclaimed feminist film that doesn’t feature any women. A non-disfigured actor could have played this role, but this misstep would only reinforce the very marginalisation the story aims to oppose.
I felt that Jade’s frustrations over her unmanaged expectations of surgery were particularly well observed. Misunderstanding around what surgery can achieve is very common, even among individuals like myself, who have spent a lifetime undergoing reconstructive procedures. People often think you can’t have the life you want while disfigured. This leaves many individuals to believe that surgery is their only hope of a ‘normal’ life.
Her keenness to rid herself of scars, in part, is due to the huge psychological limitations that are projected onto people who look different. This theme is explored again when we see Jade dancing outside her flat while hidden beneath a face veil. At this moment, she is truly able to let go, but only when her scars are hidden. This otherwise vibrant and playful sequence subtly demonstrates the life-limiting shame that can inhibit so many who are affected by disfigurement.
A terrible gulf can exist between who a person truly is and who they feel they’re ‘allowed’ to be as a visibly disfigured person. This stifled potential is heartbreaking, but life with disfigurement doesn’t have to be this way, and I’m pleased to say that the film recognises this. We see Jade wrestle with and confront the issue of internalised shame and, thankfully, the film never goes down the path of her character being ‘fixed’ by surgery.
Even though my personal experience of disfigurement is different from that of a burns survivor, I find much to relate to in this film and I am very grateful that it was made. As someone with a facial disfigurement, there is often a sense that our stories don’t belong to us, and that our faces and bodies only exist as tropes in movies to elicit fear or pity.
The most recent adaptation of The Witches shows that storytellers still have a fondness for using disfigurement and disability to unsettle an audience. However, shortly after its release, the hashtag #NotAWitch began trending on social media with people affected by limb differences taking a stand against the film’s outdated use of disability.
Perhaps this is a sign that audiences will no longer tolerate these outdated and harmful mischaracterizations. I believe the public is ready for more films, like Dirty God, that treat characters affected by visible differences with the nuance and diversity we deserve.
I am thrilled that a wider audience is getting the opportunity to see what I believe to be the finest cinematic portrayal of life with disfigurement to date.