The Enduring Story of a Woman Who Confronted Her Abuser on Camera

By Sarah Berman for VICE Magazine.

On International Women’s Day, Attiya Khan’s groundbreaking documentary ‘A Better Man’ will be screening across the country.

 Attiya and Steve. Image via NFB

Attiya and Steve. Image via NFB

A whole lot can change in a year, and filmmaker Attiya Khan knows this well. As a survivor of horrific abuse at the hands of her first boyfriend, she’s had to turn her own world upside down before. And through much of her career working in Canadian women’s shelters, she’s helped countless other women going through the same harrowing life transformations.

Last April, when Khan first put her documentary A Better Man into the world, this kind of violence was still seen almost entirely as a women’s issue. Until major newspapers reporting sexual assault allegations made it their problem, the Harvey Weinsteins and Louis CKs of the world weren’t required to reckon with the impacts of their actions. Even then, those reports left plenty of room for plausible deniability.

Khan couldn’t have anticipated the global conversation about sexual assault and the hundreds of public allegations that followed. But she did anticipate a big conundrum that comes with a #MeToo movement in full swing. Accused men can’t just disappear of the face of the planet, so we have to figure out what accountability and restorative justice could look like.

Khan’s on-camera confrontation of her abusive ex presents an alternative outcome where instead of denying or discrediting his victim, an abuser listens to a full accounting of the damage he caused. Though it’s far from a silver bullet solution, the doc lays out a roadmap for how accused men could more fully take responsibility for their actions.

A Better Man will be screening at several International Women’s Day events across the country, including local discussions in Vancouver, Peace River and Toronto. VICE caught up with Khan over email to talk about healing, unhelpful “nice guy” or “monster” labels, and the importance of face-to-face conversation.

 

VICE: So much has happened since A Better Man first premiered at Hot Docs. Can you tell me about your journey over the last year? Did you expect to see sexual and violent abuse against women become such a mainstream issue?
Attiya Khan: For the last year since the film has been released, I have been touring with the film to festivals, conferences, workplaces, and other community spaces, in Canada, the US, and Europe. The response has been overwhelming, and we’ve had interest in the film from countries around the world. It’s clear to me that people want to talk about this issue, but it’s very difficult to talk about and many people don’t know how to talk about it. The film really gets people talking. And it also has people thinking of what they can do to advance real progress on this issue.

I am surprised that violence against women has become such a mainstream issue. Advocates have pushed for decades to try and get this on the radar. To me, it felt like no one was listening. I am not surprised though by the number of people coming forward. As a counselor who used to work directly with women who have experienced domestic violence, I heard non-stop stories of abuse. I used to get frustrated that people didn’t believe how common abuse is. Social media has helped to raise the awareness not just about how many people have experienced violence, but also the many forms of violence that take place and violence in the workplace.

 

Having confronted your abuser publicly, do you feel you got the outcome you wanted? Did your intentions change in process? As a filmmaker did you worry about a "satisfying ending"?
By sitting down with Steve on camera and talking about our past relationship, I was hoping to capture a conversation that we don’t get to hear in the hopes that it could help others. What I did not expect was the more we talked, the more I healed. The process of being able to tell Steve exactly what he had done to me was very satisfying. Often, survivors are not believed or the abuse they experienced is minimized. To have Steve listen to me and start to remember some of the incidents without minimizing what he did or blame me for his past abusive behaviors has really helped me to heal. I did not worry about a satisfying ending where everything is resolved. It was important to me to show the process honestly and watch it unfold. I wanted audiences to see and to feel how hard it is to have conversation like the one Steve and I have in the film.

 Attiya and Steve. Image via NFB

Attiya and Steve. Image via NFB

Seeing so many different kinds of abuse being confronted in so many different ways, do you have any reflections on what you think works, or what risks going off the rails? 
Our responses to abuse need to focus on the needs and wants of people who have experienced abuse. We need to listen to them much more deeply, and tailor our responses around what they/we are saying. Different women will want different things. Therefore we need a system that creates different options, different paths to justice.

We also need to focus on prevention. This means focusing on the people who use violence, better understanding why they use it, and the kinds of supports and interventions that can be successful at preventing violence. Through making the film, I have learned about programs like this that have a strong track record, such as Bridges in Nova Scotia and Changing Ways in London, Ontario. We should learn from these programs and find ways to scale them up.

 

Watching the film I'm struck by the incomplete memories, and by Steve's very "normal, nice guy" outward appearance. Can you talk a bit about that?
The first time I sat down with Steve on camera, he did not remember very much. At the time I was frustrated. But it makes sense that he wanted to push the memories of harming me deep down. Steve carried a lot of shame. It became quite clear to me that Steve had never talked about his past abuse against me.

Many people have told me that they are shocked at how “normal” and “nice” Steve appears. The truth is, people who choose to use violence are people we know, they are our friends, our family members, co-workers and perhaps ourselves. People who use violence are capable of love and tenderness. They can be nice. I personally don’t think we should label people by their past abusive actions. In our society we tend to label people who use violence as “monsters.” This label allows people to distance themselves from people who use violence. This creates an “us versus them” mentality, which is never helpful.

This film will be screened at International Women's Day events across the country. What value do you see in these smaller community-oriented screenings, particularly in this climate of frequent #MeToo headlines?
There is huge value in screening the film in smaller community settings. It’s so important to have conversations about preventing violence against women and intervention. A lot of the community screenings that have been happening have been organizing panels after the film so people can unpack what they just viewed. The best and most impactful conversations happen in person, not online. To help unpack the film, my team has created excellent discussion guides and you can find them on our website.

The women’s movement has been using these in-person conversations for years as a way to organize for change. A hashtag can raise awareness, but we need much more in-depth conversations, organizing, and solutions if we want the momentum of #MeToo to translate into a meaningful decrease in abuse and violence.

When women who have been abused reach out to you, is there a message you try to convey to them?
I do hear from lots of women who are experiencing or have experienced abuse. I always thank people for sharing their experiences of violence. It takes tremendous courage and it’s important to acknowledge that. I encourage people to find someone they trust—a friend or a therapist—to continue talking about their experiences. So many of us hold such horrific stories in our bodies and we need to release the pain and trauma and talking about it is an important and great start.

One of the film takeaways is that abuse is not just a private thing. I'm wondering if you still encounter people who disagree, or if that's changed in the last year.
I definitely hear from audience members all the time who say they cannot talk about this in their own families or communities. That is why it is imperative that we create spaces outside of people’s homes to have these conversations. Many people still believe abuse is a private matter. It’s seen as none of their business. People think “well, if it was that bad, she’d leave.” We need to work on challenging people’s assumptions about abuse and the way we do this is by breaking the silence.

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Jean-Paul Mouton