The Current

'Has it affected him?' Woman confronts her abuser in documentary A Better Man

On a hot summer night 22 years ago, Attiya Khan ran through the streets fleeing her ex-boyfriend Steve, who’d been abusing her on a daily basis. Now, years later, Attiya has asked Steve to meet and filmed the process.
Filmmaker Attiya Khan sits down with her ex-partner who physically abused her in a new documentary, 'A Better Man.' (National Film Board of Canada)

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The trauma of an abusive relationship with an ex-partner has haunted Attiya Khan for two decades. Khan was physically abused by her then boyfriend Steve for almost every day during their 2-year relationship in high school.

In the documentary, A Better Man, co-directors Lawrence Jackman and Khan reach out to Steve 20 years after their relationship ended to explore a unique perspective on domestic violence.

Khan ran into Steve frequently during those 20 years on the streets of Toronto. She was initially terrified of him, but after talking to him several times, she became curious about how the abusive relationship had affected him.

"There was something in me where I was like I want to know, I want to know how he's doing," Khan tells The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti.
Filmmaker and abuse survivor Attiya Khan says there is so much silence surrounding domestic violence. (National Film Board of Canada)

"The big question for me was I've been dealing with the trauma from this abuse for over 20 years since he's done it, has this affected him in any way? Does the abuse people that people who use violence use, does it affect their lives? So I became curious about that question."

Steve, who declined being interviewed by The Current, was initially shocked when Khan asked him to a part of the film. But he eventually agreed because he felt that it was the right thing to do.

In the film, with the presence of a therapist at times, Khan and Steve trace their relationship from the day they first met to the gruesome acts of violence committed by her ex-partner that would leave her passed out in her family home.

Khan talks about the long-lasting emotional pain in a candid sit-down with Steve and asks him why he did it.

"There's so much silence around this issue," Khan says. "People turn away or people who knew us didn't think that this could possibly be happening to us. Language like, 'Gee I can't believe that you let that happen or Steve, you know, he's such a nice guy like it's hard to believe he would do that,' and the truth is that it was happening,"

It's about context, not excuses

While it was painful to talk with her ex-partner, Khan felt it was important to share this story because those who commit violence also need help. She tells Tremonti that knowing Steven experienced violence when he was younger was significant but also something Khan admits she struggled with.

"I felt really guilty because I was like, 'Is this giving him an excuse?' But it's not. It provides context. And the truth is that there is a lot of violence in this world, and it's a known fact that people who have experienced violence when they were children are possibly going to either experience violence themselves or they may use violence. For me that's key," Khan explains.

She feels an important aspect of the film is that it highlights "that people who use violence do need help and that help does exist."

The violence was largely unnoticed by family and friends and Khan never told anyone at the time. 

Throughout the film, both Khan and Steve revisit the places where he abused her. One of these places was her Ottawa high school. She tells Tremonti that one of her teachers immediately recognized her and brought up the bruises she saw on Khan during class, but the teacher had never approached or encouraged Khan to seek help.
Co-directors Lawrence Jackman and Attiya Khan. (Marina Dempster/National Board of Canada)

"It's painful for me. She's not the only one who noticed and didn't do anything and it makes me sad because I feel like there was a possibility there that Steve and I could be helped — even if she had just approached me to have a conversation just to let me know that she noticed because it made me feel invisible."

A message of hope

The film also sends a message of hope. Khan talks about how she saw Steve change throughout the film.

"There was such a sense of relief for me to be able to tell him what he had done to me and to have him listen. And he never once through this whole process denied that he had done anything to me. He never minimized it. And that is huge. That's all part of being accountable and taking responsibility."

Khan's approach to dealing with her trauma is not something she recommends for other abused women, but she does hope that by telling her story others will benefit.

The documentary A Better Man will premiere during the Hot Docs festival, April 30 in Toronto. Khan plans to travel with the documentary across the country to start a conversation about intimate partner violence.

Listen to the full conversation at the top of this web post.

This segment was produced by The Current's Sujata Berry.