I heard about it at a Friday night social.
A friend told me about A Better Man, a documentary playing at this year’s Hot Docs festival. The film centres on documentarian Attiya Khan’s journey confronting a physically abusive ex from over twenty years ago. I felt that pull, that sense of recognition I feel when my intuition spoke, as if to signal this was something I had to watch. But I had my doubts. I was busy restarting my life and building my foundation as a journalist.
I was also a little terrified. Unsure if I would be triggered or not, having to revisit memories of intimate partner abuse at this point in my life when I’m finally in a good place. I know all too well what the pain of witnessing similar circumstances can invoke within me, as if a residing presence lived in my centre grabbing my insides and twisting them forcefully — the way he used to do to my hair.
I know all too well what the pain of witnessing similar circumstances can invoke within me, as if a residing presence lived in my centre grabbing my insides and twisting them forcefully — the way he used to do to my hair.
I saw an ad for the film on my social media feed. It turns out “A Better Man” was so well received that it was running for two weeks after the festival. I took this as my second chance to work it into my busy schedule. I found a Sunday screening that worked for me and incidentally was on his birthday.
I bought the ticket. I awaited the day, almost hoping it would come sooner so I could get this over with. When the day arrived, I came early. The theatre was silent. A Hot Docs representative gave us a trigger warning, and said there were counsellors in the room should anyone need support. They had a wealth of written resources on hand for folks.
The heavy armory of warnings and printouts and counsellors took me aback. I wondered how I would react to the film. The issues Attiya tackles are issues I've dealt with in my own life. Were these measures put into place because it was just so intense the first few screenings? I know a big part of me was just looking to see this through and get it over with, but was I going to lose my head watching this? I am in a good place but I wondered whether revisiting an abusive past through Attiya’s eyes was something I could handle.
There was a lot in Attiya’s story I could identify with — a woman I have yet to meet who comes from a different generation.
She talks about her recurring nightmares. I remember having those for years, every night like clockwork. I would wake up in cold sweat at 3 AM every night from vivid nightmares, fearing for my life. Long after things had ended.
I used to remember what time exactly but it must be a good sign now that I can’t remember, or that I don't even get them anymore.
Attiya said she thought she was going to die this way, he was going to kill her. I remember having that thought constantly. Until I accepted the possibility of my death and made peace with that. I didn’t want to live a life of fear. I couldn’t be burdened with the constant worry. If that was his intention then I will leave it as his responsibility to carry and not contribute by fearing the inevitable. I learned to just live my life.
She recalls him calling her names like “dirty” as well as a racist slur often used against Indian and Pakistani women. I saw how hateful those words were. I could feel their hate. I started to see her in that light — she does have dark skin, I would think. And it’s not a cute looking dark, like that even mattered. An abuser’s hate can infiltrate your being.
I remember the words he called me, which made me think maybe I was a slut to talk to other men. Or maybe there was something wrong with not having the latest designer brands.
I would wake up in cold sweat at 3 AM every night from vivid nightmares, fearing for my life. Long after things had ended.
None of that haunts me anymore. I realize it was only really his projection of his insecurities on me.
What the documentary emphasizes is those who experience abuse need to feel a sense of justice, which looks different for everyone.
For Attiya, her sense of justice was having her ex appear to do this documentary and take responsibility for his abuses.
I realized that justice for me meant to obliterate him from having any sense of significance in my life, the way he tried to obliterate my spirit.
I've done that now: I used his birthday as a day to watch a documentary on abuse and acknowledged the truth of what I went through, instead of celebrating him.
Having done that, I see how far I’ve come. I’ve grown and healed from my past, and become happier. All the things that used to trigger and harm me no longer did.
I used his birthday to celebrate me.
For me, a sense of justice is in essence reclaiming a sense of self.
We really are not "crazy".
The film was painful and sad in parts, but for the most part, I was okay. I was even a little bored after a while. I wanted to watch a comedy. I think that means I'm ready to let this all go, and move on.
I learned everything I needed to from this experience and have healed and come out stronger. It showed me how similar all our stories of pain are, that there are patterns in abuse across the board. We really are not “crazy.”
I learned from myself that it's possible to fully heal. You don’t have to carry the burden of pain and pay for the actions of another for the rest of your life — what a relief.
If someone tries to hurt us based on our ethnic background, socioeconomic status, sexual orientation or any other arbitrary category in which they decide to place us, we can come up from the ashes of our pain.
A few days after the screening, I woke abruptly from a nightmare. I hadn’t had post traumatic nightmares in years. But my response was different this time.
"Fuck off," I thought. "I’m a journalist now, and I've got this article to write."
Judy Pham is a Toronto-based journalist with a degree in political science from the University of Toronto, and attended Humber College for journalism. She currently works as a newspaper reporter, magazine columnist, and radio programmer. She has extensive experience in video editing, filming, radio work, and writing for newspaper, magazine, television, and radio. Her interests lie in sharing stories that empower individuals to fulfill their highest potential and providing a platform for those without agency a voice through her work in journalism. She is also the creator of the media company Jode Dream Corp. In her spare time she enjoys reading, meditation, biking, eating, and trying new things.