In the closing quarter of co-director Attiya Khan’s first documentary film A Better Man, Khan poses a poignant question: “How could you not remember abusing me every day in that house?”
Opening up in what looks like an empty restaurant, Khan and her abusive ex-boyfriend, Steve, sit down for the first time in over twenty years. Reportedly shot over eight days in 2013, A Better Man revisits their violent teenage relationship.
Khan is calm, collected, but not overly cool. She has lived a fitful life, one in a constant state recovery. As both a victim and now a filmmaker, she is simply looking for that last bit of closure. She hopes to understand what went on inside that house along with in his head.
Steve slouches, clinging to his styrofoam cup. In a short series of old photos, the two teens seem normal: smiling, laughing, enjoying one another.
But as Khan kicks off her line of questioning, trying to find common ground, we realize the severity of their time together. For one reason or another, Steve had turned to violence, unleashing a physical and verbal fury. Without a proper support system, Khan lasted for far too long, submitting to the torture and fearing for her life.
Over the course of its 78 minutes, we are provided with an inside perspective on the aftermath of domestic abuse. Following along with their one-on-one conversations, sessions with a counsellor, and day trips to where it all took place – their Ottawa apartment and high school – we relive the pain along with them. As its title suggests, reconciliation may be possible, even when someone was so terribly wronged.
Bouncing back and forth between her two roles, Khan balances being a director and sensitive subject wonderfully. Although she’s invested in the ebb and flow of their conversations, trying to tease out certain ideas, it never becomes overly-affected. To be healed is her first priority, and at times, the camera captures this process organically.
However, despite the film’s best efforts, it’s resolution falls short. Reconciliation requires two parties to come to terms, and while Khan completes her project, it feels like a hollow victory.
It’s almost unbelievable that Steve should be so forgetful; that the bruises left on her body didn’t leave similar scars on his hands and feet. But as we see from the start, he can hardly remember anything that had gone on between them.
The film is a masterclass in uncomfortable circumstances – that is partly the point – but for Khan, who is looking for concrete resolution, she is stymied in almost every scene.
Steve is clearly overcome with guilt, but his confessions are for something so vague, so hazy, that it almost feels insincere. At one point, Khan is encouraged to detail a particularly violent clash: one where she’s forced from the bed, beaten, choked, and dragged across broken glass. Steve can barely corroborate her story: he simply recalls a cut knee and trip to the hospital. It is unsatisfying in the greatest sense: not because we want him to groan or grovel, rather because we want this recovery to be mutual.
Many have praised A Better Man for being “open-ended” or “without conclusion,” yet these explanations feel more like an observation of circumstance. How can a film that wishes to facilitate some sort of discussion do so with only one participant?
In spite of this setback, A Better Man proves to be an eye-opening depiction of domestic abuse, one that bears real weight and unflinching reality. Whether or not this was truly a useful exercise for Khan remains unclear, but she seems confident in the film’s closing moments that things are bound to get better.