(Dir. Attiya Khan & Lawrence Jackman, 2017)
Twenty-two years after escaping the man she thought would kill her, Attiya Khan invited Steve (understandably no last name given) into the public venue of film to talk about his years of violence. A Better Man's approach to the subject of abuse and healing is a unique one in that it welcomes the perpetrator onto its platform. This invitation might make for some initial bristling among viewers. Should we care to watch how sorry Steve is now, on camera? The answer to this is irrelevant. Of course, this is Khan's story to tell in the way she deems best. She introduces us to Steve by informing us his participation is in the hope that even one person might avoid violence because of it. In this we see that much of the film is addressed to a specific portion of its audience, others like Steve.
What one might interpret as hand-holding becomes a practical approach in this context. Khan often nods patiently when Steve fails to remember his actions and uses evasive language. “I did this,” becomes, “this happened,” and “abuse” becomes “acting out”. Her position in the film is an incredibly difficult one. We see it in her expressions, which are often pained or tense in anticipation. Yet Khan's constant composure and optimism throughout these conversations are infectious. We watch as progress is made, not in the form of Steve's apologies but in his deferral to Attiya as he refuses to define, when asked, what progress or justice means here. It may seem to be the bare minimum to some, but it's a significant step for others and to see it represented is a handy thing.
Whatever abuse Steve endured before meeting Attiya is hinted at but not explored. Whether this is because of Steve's reticence or a directorial decision is unclear, but by not digging into other aspects of Steve's character and background, the film accomplishes two things: the on-screen discussion stays focused on his actions and their effects and, by remaining vague, he may be a more accessible stand-in for others who inflict abuse. A Better Man has a mission, one that's in keeping with the work Khan presently does in Toronto to help those in similar situations. She makes of her story a generous and hopeful exploration of what a healing process could look like on both sides.
Part of our AIFF 2017 Review Roundup