*Warning, this post contains descriptions of domestic violence*
There’s a movement, growing more robust by the day, away from silence and shame towards dialogue and revelation. As survivors of abuse and harassment begin sharing their stories, connections are formed and isolation is replaced with community and hope. It’s messy as the social landscape is shifting and changing in myriad ways.
Attiya Khan and Lawrence Jackman’s documentary A Better Man is a vital part of this unfolding conversation. Executive produced by Sarah Polley and co-produced by the NFB, it’s a courageous premise: Attiya has public conversations with her former abuser and invites viewers along during the tumultuous healing process.
The initial conversation between Attiya and Steve is stilted and awkward. But as the dialogue unfolds, she presses him to remember details of their relationship 20 years ago. His recollection is sparse. Her demeanor is open and gentle and it seems they still share a sincere connection. Referred to only by his first name, Steve bears a striking resemblance to the musician Moby. He maintains a soft-spoken presence throughout the film and his lower lip quivers with emotion as he reflects on what he’s done.
Although she is compassionate during their encounters, the depth of her fear is revealed through voiceover. The horrible racial slurs he used to control her, the way he relentlessly belittled her. I wondered if it’s still too scary to tell him in person the terror she felt. The hopelessness. It’s possible her skills as an abuse counsellor helped her know which parts to leave out.
The scenes of her revisiting the places where the abuses happened are searing to watch. When she describes how a former teacher casually remarked on the bruises on her face, I felt hot anger in my belly. She recalls the many times she ran into the street screaming for help and people drew their curtains. Standing outside their old apartment, she becomes physically ill as she revisits the isolation and desperation.
As the interviews begin to increase in intimacy, she reveals the extent of his cruelty when they were a young couple. On a morning like so many others, he unleashed violence. Shattering her heart shaped jewelry box and dragging her by the hair across the glass shards. Hitting her over and over before head butting her and when she stumbled to her feet putting her into ‘the sleeper” which caused her to faint.
As she reveals horror after horror, all he remembers is throwing her off the bed and taking her to the hospital for her cut knee. He knows he did wrong, but his memory of it appears to be buried in his own feelings of inadequacy and fear. During the conversations with a therapist, he hints at some abuse in his past, but doesn’t reveal anything substantial. I found it difficult to cultivate compassion for him at that point. In some grim way, I wanted to hear that his actions had an explicit cause. But that part remains a mystery.
Watching Attiya describe in excruciating detail what he did, I felt a familiar lump in my throat. Me too, I whispered. Twenty years ago, I was engaged to a man with a violent temper. One night in a fit of jealousy, he slammed my head against the wall, threw me to the ground and straddling my chest, began choking me. I thought it was the end. I don’t know what distracted him, but he got up for a moment, growling with rage and threw my cat across the room. It gave me enough time to call for help. I was lucky to have a place to go and people to protect and support me when he stalked me. I saw him six years ago in a crowded bar and he seemed sorry, but I’ll never really know for sure. I’m still scared of him.
That Steve came forward to explore this in such public fashion is encouraging. I can’t help but wonder if my ex fiancé had been given access to good therapy and someone to truly listen, if he may have been able to atone for his behavior. It’s not something I would risk discovering, even now. I’ve worked with therapists to heal the deep wounds and have a loving relationship with a remarkable man. I’m one of the lucky ones.
That’s part of A Better Man’s eloquent power. Not many women have the opportunity to work with their abusers to help them see their lasting impact. To show the person who caused so much scarring and trauma the gravity of their actions. The lingering tremors of pain. As Attiya says: “There are some hurts that stay deep and hidden in the body.”
A Better Man offers hope for what’s possible. Given that one out of two women have experienced some form of abuse in their lives the conversations need to happen. While it’s difficult to applaud Steve, he exudes remorse. The real courage comes from Attiya, sitting down with the man who caused her such pain and generously offering him compassion and difficult yet dignified conversations.
The Reel Causes Film Society is partnering with We Can BC and Battered Women’s Support Services on November 23rd for a screening of this important work. Highly recommended.