'A Better Man': Film Review | Hot Docs 2017
Attiya Khan and Lawrence Jackman's documentary focuses on Khan's confrontations with the ex-boyfriend who abused her 20 years earlier.
It’s not uncommon for a documentary to feature an onscreen warning that viewers might find what they’re about to see emotionally upsetting. But it’s unique for one to also have therapists available for consultation in the lobby. But such was the case at the Hot Docs world premiere screening of Attiya Khan and Lawrence Jackman’s film. Depicting the reunion between Khan and the former boyfriend who violently abused her, A Better Man deals with a hot-button issue in sensitive fashion.
The film feels as much therapy session as documentary. It depicts the interactions between Khan and Steve (no last name provided, for obvious reasons) some two decades after their two-year relationship, which began when they were both in their teens, ended. The two engage in a series of conversations — some conducted in the presence of a therapist, who is also seen in solo sessions with Steve — in a variety of locations, including their former school and neighborhood.
Khan, now happily married to a loving and supportive husband, displays remarkable fortitude and courage throughout the encounters. But their deeply upsetting nature occasionally erupts. When she and Steve gaze at their old apartment building, Khan nearly vomits upon remembering that none of their neighbors tried to intervene. Steve, for his part, maintains a mostly stoic demeanor, with his expression deadpan and his voice a quiet monotone. But his eyes betray inner torment and guilt.
Khan’s descriptions of her abuse prove harrowing and difficult to hear. At one point she matter-of-factly tells the therapist, “That’s when he gave me the ‘sleeper.’” She goes on to explain that she’s referring to when Steve routinely would strangle her to the point that she almost lost consciousness and literally had her life in his hands.
Yet despite its powerful content, the film never packs the emotional punch that it should. That’s mostly due to the fact that Steve is so taciturn we never get a sense of who he is and why he did what he did. At one point he says that he was so afraid of losing Khan that he used violence as a way of keeping her in the relationship. But he provides little explanation as to how he became such a monster. Nor do we ever come to understand why Khan stayed with him for so long and how the abuse went so undetected.
To some degree, of course, those questions are unanswerable, and even beside the point. But the vagueness and ambiguity of the situations eventually proves frustrating and detract from the film’s power. A Better Man features many resonant moments, including Khan cutting a cake in celebration of the anniversary of the day she left Steve. But it ultimately proves more likely therapeutic for its principals than it will be for viewers.
Production companies: Intervention Productions, National Film Board of Canada
Directors-screenwriters: Attiya Khan, Lawrence Jackman
Producers: Christine Kleckner, Justine Pimlott
Executive producers: Sarah Polley, Anita Lee, Jane Jancovic, Janice Dawe, Kathy Avrich-Johnson
Director of photography: Iris Ng
Editor: Lawrence Jackman
Composer: Lesley Barber
Venue: Hot Docs