Attiya Khan first experienced intimate partner violence when she was 16-years-old.
Living with her boyfriend Steve at the time, who was 17, Khan escaped the violent relationship at the age of 18. But every few years, over the last two decades, the 43-year-old filmmaker still ran into her former abuser on the streets of Toronto.
“I remember thinking, ‘how can you stand there and not acknowledge what you did to me?’ At first I was terrified when I would see him, but over time I became curious about him,” she tells Global News. “I wondered if he remembered what he did to me. I wanted to know if the abuse he inflicted on me has affected him.”
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As a counsellor and advocate for women and children experiencing domestic violence, like she once did, Khan says she felt desperate to find solutions of the trauma that continued to bring her down.
How the documentary came together
Five years ago, she asked Steve if he would be part of a documentary on preventing violence in relationships.
“As challenging as it may be to listen to people who have harmed others and to demand services to help end people’s violence, this needs to be done if we want to end domestic violence,” she says. “If we want to prevent intimate partner violence, we need to talk to the people who are causing the harm.”
Four years ago, production for the documentary, A Better Man began, a riveting look at the realities of domestic abuse. Sitting with Steve and therapist Tod Augusta-Scott, the conversations took place over a two-year period, she adds. She also says it wasn’t hard to convince Steve to participate.
“His immediate response was that it felt like the right thing to do and that if he could help one young man change their path and not use violence, it would be worth it,” she says. “I never expected Steve to continue to participate in the film after our first shoot, but once I told him that the conversations we were having were really helping me, he agreed to further conversations.”
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In the film, Steve doesn’t remember much about the abuse, which Khan found frustrating. “It does not surprise me as we don’t often ask people who have used violence to talk about their harmful behaviours. As Steve and I talked more and I had the chance to go into some detail about the violence he inflicted on me, he started to remember some incidents. This was incredibly satisfying.”
She said every time she sat down with him to talk and he remembered an incident, she felt like he was being accountable.
“Having the person who hurt me take responsibility and be accountable has removed some of the weight of the pain and trauma.”
And at times, the documentary can get difficult to watch, something that Khan says was important for her to capture.
“It’s not an easy issue and it’s uncomfortable to talk about. The sad truth is, people’s experiences of violence are not always believed. Survivors’ experiences are minimized and often we are blamed for the violence used against us. I wanted to do this issue justice by being as open and honest as possible. I knew this would be a hard film to watch. I was aware that some audience members might be triggered. I’m proud of the care my team has taken in the release of the film.”
The next step
Besides being a helpful healing process for both Khan and Steve, the film was always meant to be a tool to educate people on domestic abuse.
“My goal was to provide a story that could spark conversations about trauma, intervention, healing, justice and the need for more resources for both people who experience violence and those who use it,” she says.
Currently, her team is working with several organizations to ensure we can talk about partner violence in schools, workplaces, governments and homes.
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“Domestic violence is not a private issue but it’s still treated as one. It is a global issue. We all need to be a part of making our communities safe and we need to talk about how we can all address violence, both in our personal relationships and as part of larger movements for change.”
A Better Man is currently screening in Toronto until June 26.
Where to get help
If you or someone you know is in crisis and needs help, resources are available. In case of an emergency, please call 911 for immediate help.
Here is a resource list of crisis hotlines across Canada.