Although manybrave survivors of domestic abuse have shared their stories with the world, few documentaries have cut as uncomfortably close to the bone as the Canadian made film A Better Man. Documenting a survivor who has moved on to become a crusading advocate for awareness and a former abuser looking to move on from his own feelings of guilt, A Better Man will leave viewers stomachs in knots throughout, and the world will become a slightly better place for everyone who sees it.
Over two decades after she bravely broke away from Steve, her physically, verbally, and emotionally abusive boyfriend, filmmaker and counsellor Attiya Khan (with the help of co-director Lawrence Jackman) reconnects with her former abuser by chance on the streets of Toronto. Initially, the sight of Steve is understandably triggering for Attiya, and his resurfacing after not seeing him for years dredges up uncomfortable feelings from the past. But Attiya, now a mother and happy with a supportive partner, decides to turn his negative presence into a potential positive, approaching him and making him part of a therapeutic, educational experience. The former couple carries on a warts-and-all dialogue about how abuse starts, where it comes from, and how to break its devastating cycle.
A Better Man is appropriately confrontational when it comes to the subject of abusive relationships, and no matter how sorry and reconciliatory Steve appears to outside observers, his actions in the past are patently unforgivable. It’s hard to put into words how brave Khan’s actions are here, and although Steve wants no applause for confronting a past he should feel awful about, it’s always important to stress that this exercise – which includes both of them talking to a therapist and literally walking back through their old haunts – should be a means of closure for the both of them.
What A Better Man (which premiered to rave reviews at Hot Docs earlier this spring) most expertly conveys is that there are no set parameters or warning signs for when a relationship might become abusive, and that no amount of abuse is tolerable on any level. It also stresses that most abusers don’t see that their actions are abusive until they’re confronted. By all accounts, Steve was a nice man who didn’t drink or do drugs, so some were taken aback when Attiya finally came clean about what was going on between them. Perhaps most shocking of all is when Steve straight up tells Attiya that plenty of people knew what was happening, but they were turning a blind eye to stay out of it. That’s almost as terrifying a revelation as any of the graphic details the former couple shares with viewers.
What A Better Man means on a restorative or emotional level for both of the parties involved in the film’s conversation is debatable, but what’s indisputable is the documentary’s ability to act as an incendiary conversation starter. Khan and Jackman are to be commended for the boldness of their actions here, and A Better Man will go down as one of the most socially vital Canadian documentaries of the year.