The opening scene of A Better Man, playing Wednesday at DOC NYC, is incredibly painful to sit through. Attiya Khan, the co-director, sits at a café with her ex-boyfriend Steve and asks him directly about the violence he inflicted on her 20 years ago, when they lived together while still in high school. The confrontation is brave, raw, and filled with complex emotions. But how — and why — did Khan make the decision to confront her abuser, and on-camera, no less?
Initially, Khan was curious about what made men harm women, and eventually, she also found that this process was healing for her as a victim of domestic abuse. So she decided to expand this scene into this revolutionary documentary. The former couple got together with specialist Tod Augusta-Scott to explore a form of therapy known as restorative justice. Soon after, Sarah Polley agreed to produce the film. “It was a conversation I’d never heard before. It made me think about the issue in completely new ways,” Polley told Vulture. “We consistently put the weight of responsibility on women’s shoulders to resolve the issue of violence against women. I realized I had never heard from a man who abused: Why he did it, what it felt like, what would have helped him stop, who he is now.”
Despite focusing on these questions about the abuser and working with a co-director (Lawrence Jackman), the film always feels like it’s being told from Khan’s point of view. After surviving domestic abuse, Khan went on to work in domestic-violence prevention, most recently at the YWCA December 6 Fund, which provides interest-free loans to help women leaving D.V. situations. What she’s exploring through documentary work now feels like the next step in helping others find new ways to heal. Vulture spoke with Khan over email (the medium she was most comfortable with, given the subject matter) about making A Better Man — the difficulties in making it, the lessons that can be learned from it, and the complexities of restorative justice. Khan also brought in therapist Augusta-Scott to answer some questions she felt he could better explain.
Attiya, we’re doing this interview by email, at your request. Can you explain why that is a better idea than by phone in this situation?
I want to thank you for your understanding in terms of having me participate in an interview by email instead of over the phone. When I was making the film, I did not think about what it would be like to release it and talk about it over and over again! It has been extremely challenging.
When I talk about it with one person, or many, I have physical reactions. My face flushes, my heart rate increases, and I feel a huge weight on my shoulders. When I am talking to the media, I get even more anxious. Partly because when it comes to this topic, we all need to be very careful in addressing the issue. People’s lives are actually at stake. I feel a sense of responsibility to be careful and respectful surrounding the issue of domestic violence. Not that I wouldn’t be over the phone, but I worry that I wouldn’t say things as well. It feels safer to write things down. For me, I feel more comfortable having time to sit with a question. It also has to do with control which is probably related to the abuse I experienced. I do not like feeling out of control, especially when it comes to talking about the violence I experienced.
I think people should listen to what it is that those of us who have been harmed want and need and this includes the media and the telling of our stories. I’ve been treated by some as if I should be happy that my story is being covered. To be honest, I am not happy if it comes to the detriment of my mental health. If I feel more comfortable offering my story of abuse by email, as you so easily and respectfully accepted, then I believe it is worth it, because people get to hear about a story that rarely gets covered and my mental health is being respected at the same time.
How did you decide that involving your abuser in the therapeutic process was a good idea?
I didn’t know that this would be a therapeutic process! My goal with the film at the beginning was to simply document the conversation that Steve and I had hoping that something could be learned from it. I had not seen or heard of this done before — someone sitting down with the person who hurt them to talk about the abuse in an open way. I had questions I wanted to ask Steve. I had no idea if he would or could answer them.
I was frustrated by the expectation that people who have experienced violence should be the only ones to educate others and talk about their experiences. What makes me angry is that we courageously offer our stories and then our experiences are often questioned and not believed.
I hate that. Someone does something to the victim and she’s the one who has to bear the responsibility of a lifetime of therapy, like a sentence. Why isn’t the responsibility on the person who does this action?
Exactly! I think it should be the responsibility on the person who caused harm. But we need to create spaces for that to happen and provide services to help people to take responsibility and work towards non-violence.
I think many people see the criminal justice system as the only way to provide justice. I think that this system, which focuses on punishment, actually encourages people who have used violence in their relationships to not take responsibility for their harmful behaviors. By not taking responsibility, they are avoiding the possibility of punishment, in this case prison. I’ve heard from some women I’ve worked with that the person who hurt them did get convicted but the process did not offer them a sense of justice because no responsibility was taken.
Is involving the abuser a new approach, or something long-established?
AK: After the first conversation that Steve and I had on film, Steve agreed to continue to participate. I did not expect this. Part of his reason for continuing had to do with the fact that the first conversation we had, was helping me to heal.
To help move our future conversations forward, we brought in Tod Augusta-Scott, a therapist from Nova Scotia who has worked with men who use violence. It was Tod who mentioned to me that the approach Steve and I are taking is similar to a restorative justice approach. I had never heard of restorative justice before. Tod explained to me that the process of people healing and repairing harms they have created is ancient.
Tod Augusta-Scott: In the context of the domestic violence movement, these conversations have been happening over the last 15 years, however they’re becoming more broadly recognized as helpful to women in the last five years.
And how did you decide to make this into a documentary, Attiya?
When I asked Steve if he would sit down with me and talk about our past relationship, I also told him that it would be filmed. I had no intention to sit down with him unless it would be filmed. I wanted our conversation to be used as a tool to educate others.
The idea to make a documentary came to me at work, when I was running the Dec 6 Fund. I had a particularly challenging day at work. I remember getting many calls from women who were in very dangerous living situations. This happened every day, of course, but this was an unusual amount of disturbing calls one after another. I was already feeling very burnt out by my work. I felt hopeless. It was on this shift where for the first time I thought, “What is going on with men who are hurting women?” I thought about Steve and how he had once mentioned to me that he did try and get help at the end of our relationship. He mentioned to me that they (the therapist he saw) “closed the door in his face and did not know how to help” him. I remember googling “help men who abuse in Canada.” Two organizations popped up — Bridges and Changing Ways. I was shocked to see that help was available. For the first time in a long time, I felt a surge of hope. It was then that the thought of talking to Steve on camera about our past could bring forward important information about what steps need to be taken in terms of preventing domestic violence.
And how did your co-director, Lawrence Jackman, get involved?
After I filmed the first conversation in the café with Steve, I spoke with Sarah Polley. Sarah is a friend. Her partner and my partner are good friends. I will never forget her amazement when I told her that Steve showed up and we filmed a conversation that lasted hours. She quickly introduced me to Christine Kleckner, the producer of A Better Man. Sarah correctly thought that Christine and I would get along and work well together. Christine introduced me to Lawrence Jackman, who I immediately trusted to respect both Steve and I and the issue of domestic violence. Lawrence and I agreed early on that we wanted to create a film that was hopeful, respectful, non-sensationalizing with no visual depictions of violence.
I noticed the cinematographer, Iris Ng, is a woman. Was having a woman filming you and filming Steve important to you?
It was incredibly important to me to have a woman cinematographer. I’ve always worked in positions advocating for women in spaces staffed by women. Violence against women is something so many women have experienced. Walking through the world as a woman feels and looks a certain way. I wanted a woman’s lens to depict my story.
The first time I met Iris to discuss the film I was blown away by her thoughtful questions and her calmness. She wanted to know about my story. How I see it. How I feel it. What visuals jump out for me. She is so considerate and curious. The calm she exudes flowed onto set. I really think she was a big part of why Steve and I felt as comfortable as we did on camera.
Does the camera change the therapeutic process?
Something Steve and I have talked about is how quickly we forgot about the cameras and the crew surrounding us. I’m sure this sounds hard to believe! I think because the conversation was incredibly difficult and we both wanted to be as open and honest as possible, we both gave it our everything. I remember Steve telling me, before we started filming with Tod, that “we have to be honest and tell it like it was or else it’s not going to help.” I totally agreed with him. Every time I watch the film, I’m always taken aback at how vulnerable both Steve and I are on screen.
There were a few times when I wanted to say more but I didn’t. I held back because I thought Steve might get up and leave. In hindsight, I actually think he would have sat through it. Perhaps it also had to do with me not being ready to go to those specific places deep inside of me. An example of this is not being able to talk about the racism he used against me at times. I can barely write this without tears so I still think I have to work through this before saying more.
This part of your narration, mentioning the racist abuse, really struck me. It hit a chord that I’m not sure I can articulate, but that I recognize. Something about abusers and power … I’d love for you to expand, but I understand if now isn’t the time.
I think why it’s hard is that racism continues to affect me today. It’s not just Steve who has been racist towards me. I experience racism a lot (as I’m sure you do as a WOC!). Racism is a form of emotional abuse.
It all piles up. The racism I experienced as a child to the racism I experienced from Steve to the racism I experience from people I know and care for to the racism I experience from strangers. Layers and layers of racism. When people say racist things to me now, whether or not they mean to be, it definitely reminds me of the racism I experienced with Steve. And that’s hard. And I think this is why I still have a hard time talking about this.
Steve is soft-spoken, and almost gentle-seeming. He is not at all the typical abuser “bad guy” we see in fictional films. Was this part of the importance of showing him on camera? Of the camera confronting the disconnect (or reconnect) of the man and his actions?
Steve is a soft-spoken man. The whole “bad guy” fictional character is problematic. It reinforces the false idea that only certain people use violence. I think people are uncomfortable thinking about the possibility that it is people we know who are using violence. There isn’t a certain type of person who uses violence. As there isn’t a certain type of person that experiences violence.
Your question reminded me of something I haven’t thought about in a long time. When I left Steve, many people said to me that they couldn’t believe Steve hurt me so badly since he’s a smaller guy and we are close to the same size. This statement was so hurtful. It felt like they were judging me for his use of violence. Like I should have been able to fight him off. What some folks fail to realize is that when people are angry, they can be incredibly strong and size does not matter. When it comes to emotional abuse, size does not matter either. People who choose to use violence are capable of love, tenderness and respect. When I was with Steve, he was smart, caring, interesting, funny and stylish. He was also angry at times and used violence against me. Steve was not a bad evil monster. He was a young man who chose to use violence against me which was harmful and impacted my life and his life. He needed help to stop using violence.
Steve’s process of remembering his actions was really interesting. We often hear of victims having to block out or repress memories that are too intense or traumatic, but rarely do we discuss how abusers might do this. Is this common?
AK: This is one of the things I wondered before making the film! Thank you for asking this because I think it’s important. After that first conversation in the café, where Steve remembers very little, I remember wondering how it is that I remember so much and he doesn’t. It made me think about the possibility that perhaps it is actually traumatic to inflict violence on others and blocking it is a way to cope with the terrible things we do. In a way, that makes total sense to me.
When we continued our conversations with Tod, it was interesting to see how Steve started to remember some of the things I was bringing up. But also, Steve remembered things I didn’t remember.
TAS: This is common. When men said they forget in the past, I thought they were lying. Undoubtedly, some men were lying. Many men learn that they should never admit mistakes, they should always win and always be right. Many men are worried about being punished or violated themselves if they admit to what they have done. At the same time, as your question indicates, many men do forget the details of their choices to use violence. Many men repress these memories because they are ashamed of their choices. The moments of choosing violence often do not reflect how men prefer to be in their relationships. The act of remembering these incidents is often very painful for these men, as it is for Steve.
Your movie is coming out in New York, when we’re daily learning well-loved, charming, talented men are abusers. Do you think your movie has a lesson for how to deal with this? Personally (as a fan, say) and as a culture?
A Better Man shows the healing that can happen when the person who uses violence takes responsibility for the harms they’ve created.
I hope that that conversation about abuse that’s happening right now can evolve to focus not only on individuals, but also on more systemic questions. How do we heal a culture that has allowed all this abuse to happen, for so long, with impunity? How do we heal a culture where women spoke up for years and years and no one believed them? How do we replace a culture of indifference with a culture of intervention? Where are the leaders — in business, in politics, even in progressive social movements — who will take bold steps to heal the culture in their institutions? Focusing only on punishing individuals misses an opportunity to use these horrible revelations as a teachable moment to drive much deeper change at a community and institutional level. It’s not just these men who have harmed women. It’s the workplaces, schools, justice system, and neighborhoods that did nothing to protect them. I want to bring our film not only to festivals but also to these other settings, which is where the real change needs to happen.
Tod, the Meadows in Arizona is the place where Harvey Weinstein and Kevin Spacey recently went for sex-addiction therapy. As far as you know, is there any restorative justice approach at this facility?
TAS: I haven’t had any direct experience with the Meadows. There is nothing on their website that would suggest they have a restorative approach. The website reflects a pretty traditional approach to addictions, which means focusing on the individual rehabilitation — not being accountable and taking responsibility to repair harms done to others. For example, there opening page asks the question “what are the effects of sexual addiction?” and focuses solely on how the individual with the addiction is affected and not the effects on those the person is in relationship with.
These men going into “treatment” could make the situation worse for others. Traditional addiction/ therapy discourses often foster self-absorption. All who enter therapy get turned into victims (in the case of these men, they become victims of a disease). This identity is probably a more attractive option than simply being totalized as an evil criminal. A restorative approach would sidestep the labels altogether and simply go for being someone who is committed to taking responsibility for stopping the abuse and repairing the harms.
In some addictions work, there is the process of making amends and being accountable, however, I find it is usually pretty thin. Taking responsibility often gets reduced to simply admitting, “I did it.”