An Interview with “A Better Man” Filmmaker Attiya Khan

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*Content warning: domestic abuse*

Reel Causes, one of WIFTV’s community partners, is screening the NFB documentary A Better Man. This landmark film is the story of a woman, Attiya Khan, who confronts her abusive ex-partner, Steve. Through the candid conversations they share 22 years later, we learn about their respective experiences throughout the relationship.

WIFTV was offered the opportunity to provide Khan with some questions via email, and we were happy to reach out. Given the subject matter, it is not difficult to understand why she would feel more comfortable responding to questions over email. This Vulture article explains it in greater detail.

Join Reel Causes for the Vancouver premiere of A Better Man on November 23rd at SFU Woodward’s (149 West Hastings Street) at 7 pm. There will be a panel following the screening and an active listener will be present.

As you are not a traditional filmmaker and we’ve read that Steve took some convincing to be involved, we’re curious how this film ended up getting made.  

I have wanted to make a documentary about my experience for a long time. After years of running into Steve, and eventually talking with him about why it was important to me to make a documentary, he agreed, but not without careful consideration; we knew that this commitment would be difficult for both of us. I had a friend film our first conversation, and wasn’t exactly sure what the next steps would be. I eventually searched for a producer, and we worked very closely to define my goals, navigate the requirements for financing a film, and ultimately manage the overwhelming experience of making a film about myself. It was almost a five-year process, and the commitment from everyone involved was immense.

Earlier this year, WIFTV was thrilled to share the news about the NFB initiative to expand its gender equity plan to include other key creative positions (i.e., cinematographer, composer, and screenwriter). Most of the crew for A Better Man is comprised of women. What process was involved in deciding on the crew?   

Sarah Polley introduced me to my producer, Christine Kleckner, who was a very close collaborator throughout the making of this film. We very carefully established a team that would be respectful of my process, and respectful towards women. We spent some time creating a demo to discuss our creative ideas and really get to know each other. My producer, co-director and cinematographer are seasoned documentarians, and they knew how intense the process would be for me, and were incredibly supportive. There were a number of women that were essential, but the entire crew really was a dream team. Further to that, my outreach team – Steph Guthrie (Impact Producer) and Janette Luu (Strategy and Communications) are fiercely driven to push this project. My instinct will always be to work with women first, but I think it’s important to be open to all of the possibilities.

Throughout the film, the responses seem genuine and candid. Was there ever a time when having a camera present impacted your behaviour? Or Steve’s behaviour?

We were both aware of the camera, although there were some moments where we immediately focused on each other and the camera was the last thing we were thinking about. But there were times when Steve struggled to find his words, or I was thinking about how far I might want to take a conversation, and our awareness of being filmed would start to infiltrate. But our cinematographer, Iris Ng, was exceptional at reading these signals, and would make decisions that gave us the space we needed, while really maintaining that feeling of intimacy and authentic feeling of the mood and space that we were in.

[We liked this question Reel Causes used on their blog and decided to ask Khan for her input.] This film is unlike anything we’ve seen before, bringing healing and insight for women – and men, as we watch your courage in meeting your former abuser, as well his voluntary act of taking responsibility for the violence. How do you think Vancouverites – victims, abusers and allies – can work towards healing?

I think one thing we can all do is recognize that people can’t be categorized so neatly as that. We are whole human beings and our identities and histories are complex. People who use violence aren’t just abusers – there are many other characteristics and actions that make up who they are, and many of them have also experienced violence at some point in their lives. Many people who may identify as allies, and some of those of us who’ve experienced violence, have also engaged in abusive behaviour (physically, emotionally or otherwise) at some point in our lives. As a culture, we are getting closer to understanding in theory that people who use violence are not monsters but our friends, family members, colleagues and neighbours. But I think when actually faced with the possibility that someone we care about has used violence, or that we ourselves have engaged in behaviour that hurt somebody else, we still default to very black-and-white responses that validate the “monster” narrative, by either dismissing the possibility (“I’m a good person, I didn’t mean to hurt anyone!”) or by ostracizing the person. I hope A Better Man helps people understand that there are other options available to us besides ignoring and ostracization when we encounter stories about violence happening in our own communities.

How has making this film impacted you?

I really do feel like I’ve started to heal, which I didn’t expect from all of this. This goes beyond a sense of relief – I physically feel better. I feel less burdened and have less anxiety when I’m in new spaces. I’m literally breathing better! I got what I needed from this, and the strength and joy that I feel entering the next phase of my life has a lot do with making A Better Man.

While this film has the potential to be triggering for audiences, it is an incredibly important story. What advice would you give to those who are reluctant to attend a screening?

This is a difficult film for audience members, especially for people who have experienced violence. This is why our team has made an effort to ensure there are counselors available at as many screenings as possible, to listen and offer support to audience members. People who have experienced violence know what is best for them, and I hope they listen to their instincts about whether or not to attend. If they do attend, I encourage them to think about what steps they can take to make sure they have the support they need during and after watching – whether it’s some quiet time alone afterward, bringing a close friend with them to the screening, or anything else they need.

Words by Brianna Girdler and Jennifer Foden

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