In the first few moments of the recently released documentary film A Better Man, writer-director-protagonist Attiya Khan describes the day she met her former boyfriend Steve.
She was 16, he 17. “It was a very happy day,” she says. “It was the amazing day.”
More than 20 years have elapsed since that initial encounter, and A Better Man looks back on Khan and Steve’s pivotal first relationship and the long-term damage it caused when it transitioned from “amazing” to violent. As Khan reports, during the course of their two-year relationship, Steve (whose surname is never shared), frequently attacked Khan and tormented her with verbal abuse and prejudice.
The film is a laudable endeavor, addressing not only teenage love and lust, but also the ways that Steve’s violence marred Khan’s life and scarred her in profound, lasting ways. The goal is restorative justice—an approach in which perpetrators listen to their victims describe how their actions have been harmful—and the documentary gives potent voice to Khan’s questions, pain, and reflections. In addition, it forces viewers to grapple with how Steve’s physical and psychological abuse continue to affect Khan decades later.
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But A Better Man (which is available through Women Make Movies and will stream at Canadian broadcaster TVO’s website starting on November 26, a day after the United Nations’ International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women) is also really, really frustrating. I finished watching the 79-minute film—reportedly shot over eight days in 2013—with more questions than answers about Steve, his willingness to make amends, and his implied commitment to nonviolent social engagement.
First, however, let me outline the story that Khan portrays in the film. Khan and Steve lived together and shared two different apartments in Ottawa, Canada. During that time, Steve repeatedly assaulted Khan, slamming her head into cement walls and wooden floors and choking, kicking, and punching her. He regularly belittled her and hurled words like “bitch” and “slut” in her direction. A “honeymoon period” of apologies and promises typically followed each attack, a trajectory that’s familiar to anyone who has experienced domestic violence or studied the phenomenon.
Khan uses the film to focus on one particularly gruesome day in which the beating began the minute she woke up and continued for many hours. “I remember being dragged from the bed,” she begins, “and hit and punched in the face a lot of times. Our faces were really close. I felt bruised everywhere, limp. I had no energy. I was thinking, ‘Please stop. I don’t think my body can do this anymore.’”
Eventually, Steve picked up Khan’s glass jewelry box and threw it, breaking it into hundreds of tiny shards. “You then dragged me across the glass,” she tells him. “I was afraid I’d never get out, that I’d be killed. I was gonna die. It felt hopeless. There was nothing I could do about it. It was just a matter of time.”
This account is obviously harrowing and to his credit, Steve looks genuinely pained by Khan’s memories. At the same time, he says that he barely recalls the incident. “I can remember you cutting your knee,” he admits. “I remember I tossed you off the bed. You cut your knee, and I took you to the hospital.”
Throughout A Better Man, Steve is shown listening. Sometimes he and Khan are in cafes, and at one point they take a walking tour past the apartment buildings they lived in and the school they attended. Several of their therapy sessions are also filmed, with a counselor asking questions and steering the conversation.
Each of these steps feels like an important part of the journey back. Nonetheless, Steve’s unending deer-in-the-headlights gaze left me wondering how it felt for him to hear his brutality recounted in such precise detail. In short, he looked contrite, but was he? As a viewer, I was left with a feeling of “maybe,” but that feeling needed verbal confirmation or some perceptible evidence to give Steve the multidimensional personality he seemed to be missing.
The film leaves other questions as well. First, there is no mention of family, and since the pair hooked up as teenagers, it raises the questions of why their parents or guardians seemingly did nothing to ensure that their kids were all right. They were, after all, still in high school. Likewise, teachers seemed to turn a blind eye to their predicament. Did no one notice Khan’s bruises and ask about them? The fact that the United States’ 2013 National Youth Risk Behavior Survey found that 10 percent of high schoolers say that they’ve experienced physical violence from a dating partner in the last 12 months—and there’s nothing to suggest that Canadian teens are not affected by the global epidemic of intimate partner abuse—makes this especially urgent.
Then there’s the issue of race. “You called me ugly,” Khan says, “a Paki” and in “1,000 ways indicated that I deserved to be spit on because I was brown.” This statement feels like a sucker punch but, once it is aired, it evaporates. Neither Steve nor the therapist address the racism that Khan lays bare. It’s a shocking and disappointing omission.
There are other huge gaps. As the film moves along, we learn that Khan is now a happily married mother, works with survivors of domestic abuse, and travels widely to educate people about relationship violence. Steve, however, remains opaque. It’s unclear if he has had other relationships, if he abused anyone else after he and Khan split, if he works, or if he has become something of a hermit. His biggest disclosure occurs during therapy, when the counselor asks him why he chose to be violent. His answer? “I was desperate to keep Attiya exactly where she was, beside me,” he says. “I was desperate to hold her. I’m sorry I made poor choices.”
He sounds pathetic.
That said, Steve skirts questions about his own history and whether he was abused himself—perhaps a condition he insisted upon when agreeing to participate in making A Better Man (a process and likely a negotiation that is never explained). And while the film hints that his family of origin was violent, Steve never directly describes any such experiences.
Some will argue that his story is irrelevant, and is instead chance for someone—in this case, Khan—who was victimized to take center stage and demand to be heard. But I disagree. As I see it, breaking the cycle of violence requires a deep understanding of why many of us turn to physical and verbal abuse as a response. In fact, since victims often become victimizers, it seems imperative that we try to get to the core of why so many people who’ve been mistreated replicate hateful behaviors. Indeed, if there is another way to effect change, I don’t know what it is.
Maybe listening to Khan turned Steve into a better man. I certainly hope so. Their encounters clearly benefited Khan and when the former couple hugs at the end of the film, she looks genuinely relieved that Steve heard her account, acknowledged that he’d hurt her, and apologized. What’s more, Steve’s confirmation that he brutalized her—however sketchy his memory—gave Khan the boost she needed.
“I thought I was crazy, but it did happen,” she tells a group of friends who gather to help her celebrate the 23rd anniversary of leaving him. “I now feel like I’m healing.” It’s a lovely affirmation.
It’s also simply one woman’s story, and Khan makes clear that the process she and Steve opted for is not necessarily right for everyone who has been battered by a domestic partner. Still, the restorative justice model that the pair pursued is a key step in creating a society that is less reliant on criminal penalties and incarceration for lawbreakers.
As for atonement, the jury remains out. How can someone like Steve atone for what he did to Khan? Ultimately, that’s for her to determine. A Better Man indicates that she has forgiven him, even as she vows never to forget the harm he once wrought.