Realscreen’s Trailblazers: Attiya Khan on confronting her past on camera

Last year proved to be a rollercoaster ride in many ways, and the non-fiction/unscripted content industry has certainly experienced its share of peaks and valleys over the last 12 months. ...
January 26, 2018

Last year proved to be a rollercoaster ride in many ways, and the non-fiction/unscripted content industry has certainly experienced its share of peaks and valleys over the last 12 months. With Trailblazers, realscreen salutes those behind some of the high points, profiling individuals and companies that — through innovative and brave approaches to their work — have been behind some of the more inspiring projects to emerge in 2017.

We finish our look at 2017′s Trailblazers with a profile of Attiya Khan below. 

Coming to terms with the trauma of past violence and finding closure is a daunting task for any individual. Now, imagine filming every moment of that journey, then broadcasting those intimate moments for the world to see.

In A Better Man, Attiya Khan, a survivor of domestic abuse, confronts her past by inviting her abuser, Steve, to discuss the violence that occurred 20 years prior. Khan and her ex talk openly about their relationship, revisiting their old apartment, school and hang-out spots.

Through A Better Man, which bowed at the Toronto Hot Docs Film Festival in April 2017, Khan hopes to advance the movement to end violence against women through a deeper focus on helping abusive men to change. Having worked as a counselor and advocate for women, Khan believes in the need to focus on the source of the problem to end violence against women.

To help viewers unpack the doc, Khan and her team created a free kit specifically designed for men to encourage discussion on the film and its themes. Khan is also working to get the film into schools. Educational materials developed by Khan’s team along with the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation (OSSTF) will be piloted in several high schools in the Canadian province, with a view of bringing the doc to more high schools in future years.

“I think it resonated with [the OSSTF] that Steve and I were in high school when the violence took place, and they thought the film could be a powerful learning tool if accompanied by the right supports and other teaching material,” says Khan. “I was so excited about this partnership since I have always wanted to use my story as a way to help high school students.”

How conscious were you of having a production team that has such strong female representation?

It was important to me to have women working on A Better Man. Before making the film, I worked at the YWCA Toronto which provides resources and advocacy by women for women. Before that I worked in a shelter for women and children who experienced domestic violence. I was used to only seeing women in my professional work.

Having a strong, female-led team was also important to my producer, Christine Kleckner, who talked about the lack of women in film in our first meeting. We spoke about both the importance of having women on our team and the importance of collaboration. Something that has bothered me, especially now that the film is released, is how so many people who help create a film don’t often get recognized, like sound recordists, editors and production managers. I realize now that it takes a lot of people to make a film. But the truth is, I could not and did not create this film on my own. As a first-time filmmaker, I’m amazed at how little attention gets directed towards, for example, producers. Christine Kleckner worked every day on this film for three years. She can talk about the making of it in a way that I can’t and her perspective is equally important to mine.

Having a woman cinematographer was important to me. I wanted to feel as comfortable as possible on camera and for me this meant having a woman behind the camera. I’ve always noticed where shots linger, especially on women. I wanted to make sure that the person behind the camera would respect me, respect my body. Iris Ng not only made me feel respected but she was able to provide a sense of distance in my conversations with Steve. I believe we were able to talk so intimately because of how Iris set up the shots and maneuvered around us.

A common topic that’s brought up with docmakers is the idea of access. Having turned the lens on yourself, what kind of role did access play for you and Steve?

Access played a huge role for Steve and me. It’s important to know that when I asked Steve to participate in the film, I felt safe around him and he was at a place where he wanted to take responsibility for the harms he inflicted on me. If I did not feel safe, I would not have asked him to participate.

Steve trusted me with our story which I will forever be grateful for. I mentioned to him from the very beginning that I wasn’t interested in depicting him as a monster. I emphasized how I wanted to show how both of us have been impacted by his use of violence. I knew this would be key if I really wanted to make an honest film that could be used as an educational tool. I also didn’t want this film to ruin his life. I actually hoped that this film could make his life better.

Steve immediately felt a connection with Larry [co-director Lawrence Jackman] which helped him gain trust in the project. I wanted Steve to know that the people who were working on the film were talented, professional and respectful. When I first told Steve about Larry, I sent him links to Larry’s previous work. After watching them, Steve mentioned that he really liked Larry’s work and that he felt like Larry would “do justice” to our story. When Steve met Iris and the rest of the crew, he said he felt surprisingly comfortable around them. I remember feeling anxious before we started filming as I wasn’t sure how those around us would treat Steve, knowing how he had once hurt me. It was a great relief to know that he felt respected which allowed both him and I to trust those around us, each other and the process.

Larry and I decided to bring in Tod Augusta-Scott, the facilitator in the film, because we felt Steve and I needed some support to get through our challenging conversations. Having Tod guide us, helped move the conversation forward and it helped build trust. Tod was able to provide a sense of safety for both Steve and I. We knew Tod had our backs.

Having finished the film and revisited it multiple times through screenings,  are you hoping to close the chapter on this time in your life?

I do get a sense of closure with Steve in the film. It has been way more challenging than I thought now that it has been released. I have been traveling with the film non-stop since its release at Hot Docs in April. I have not yet been able to step away from it. I’m looking forward to slowing things down soon so I can benefit from the closure and healing that occurred during the making of the film.

  • Our “Trailblazers” feature first appeared in the January/February 2018 issue of realscreen magazine, which is out now. Not a subscriber? Click here for more information.
About The Author
Barry Walsh is editor and content director for realscreen, and has served as editor of the publication since 2009. With a career in entertainment media that spans two decades, prior to realscreen, he held the associate editor post for now defunct sister publication Boards, which focused on the advertising and commercial production industries. Before Boards, he served as editor of Canadian Music Network, a weekly music industry trade, and as music editor for As content director, he also oversees the development of content for the brand's market-leading events, the Realscreen Summit and Realscreen West, as well as new content initiatives.