In a Nutshell: Five inspiring documentary films with Canadian director and activist Attiya Khan

Just in time for the opening of Berlin Feminist Film Week, we speak to the documentary filmmaker about restorative justice, the importance of telling complex stories, and what led her to sit face-to-face with the partner who abused her.

The concept for Attiya Khan’s first film, A Better Man, came after a particularly difficult day in the office. As an advocate and counselor for abused women and children, she was running a program called The December 6th Fund, which offers interest-free loans to help women leave domestic violence relationships, and was feeling overwhelmed by what she heard. “[There were] terrifying stories of abuse,” she says. “I put my head on my desk, closed my eyes and wondered, why are so many men using violence against their partners?”

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It wasn’t the first time she had asked herself that question: As a teenager, Khan experienced almost daily abuse at the hands of her first boyfriend, Steve. Now, 20 years later, she decided to confront her ex-partner and ask if he would agree to make a documentary with her. Despite having no previous experience in the industry, she wanted to make A Better Man because she knows—from her own experience and from working as a counselor—how difficult it is to talk about domestic violence with friends and family. In contrast, visual culture, Khan says, “has the ability to draw people in, get people talking, and create change.”

Like many other perpetrators of violence against women and children, Steve had never talked to anyone about the abuse before, which led to the decision to bring in a third party to lead the conversation. “We wanted someone who could help create a space where we both felt supported and respected,” Khan says. The person she chose, Tod Augusta-Scott, has worked with men who use violence for over 20 years and uses an approach that encourages dialogue between the offender and the victim. “Tod defines restorative justice as healing and repairing the harm done to those who have been hurt,” explains Khan. “At the same time, the restorative approach empowers people who use violence to take responsibility so they can help repair this harm.” The result is that A Better Man helps to shift the dialogue around domestic violence by focusing on the source of the problem: the people who are using violence. “The burden is too often on women to talk about the issue and educate others,” says Khan, “but it is mainly the men who need to be confronted with it.”

Unsurprisingly, Khan’s favorite documentaries are about hard-hitting topics—modern-day slavery, abortion, colonialism—told from a feminist and female-led viewpoint. “For me, a good documentary is personal and shows how complex people’s lives are,” she adds. “I love hearing from people I’d never have the opportunity to meet and learn about different perspectives. If I cry or laugh a lot during a doc, then it’s usually a sign that I like it!”

Attiya Khan on five documentaries that leave a lasting impact

Vessel by Diana Whitten

Vessel focuses on Dr. Rebecca Gompert and her organization Women on Waves. Dr. Gompert sails a ship around the world and provides abortions on international waters for women who can’t attain abortions legally. This film is a wonderful example of how powerful, fearless, and loud one individual can be and the change that follows.”

Birth of a Family by Tasha Hubbard

Birth of a Family is a Canadian film about four siblings who meet for the first time after being separated as infants. In Canada from the ’50s to the ’80s, 20,000 Indigenous children were taken from their families and put into foster homes and adopted by white families. This atrocity, known as the “Sixties Scoop,” was initiated by the Canadian government. I highlight this documentary because I believe we need to learn about the historical racism and colonialism that exists in the country we live in.”

Shirkers by Sandi Tan

"Shirkers is the most recent doc I watched. It’s a story about filmmaker Sandi Tan, whose first film was stolen before it was finished. Tan wrote and starred in the film when she was a teenager. After 20 years, the footage resurfaces and Tan takes us through the story of losing the footage and revisiting it. While watching this film I realized how unique and rare the voice of a teenage girl is. It has me craving more stories about young creative women, and wishing their voices were featured more prominently in film.”

Los Dos Escobar by Jeff Zimbalist and Michael Zimbalist

Los Dos Escobar combines sports, crime, and politics. It tells the story of two unrelated Escobars—Pablo, an infamous drug lord, and Andres, a huge soccer star in Columbia—whose stories and fates are connected. The story that unraveled blew me away. I got lost in it and when it was over I couldn’t believe it was a real story. I like watching docs about sports, and I chose this one to share with you because I think it’s one of the best!”

A Woman Captured by Bernadett Tuza-Ritter

A Woman Captured is about a Hungarian woman named Marish, who is forced to work unpaid as a domestic servant for a well-off family. This is a story of modern day slavery. It’s a brave film about a brave woman who is living and working in an incredibly abusive environment. The filmmaker has gone where you would never expect, into the house of the owner of the enslaved person. I found it incredibly powerful to witness Marish gain confidence through her relationship with the filmmaker. This film really demonstrates to me the impact of building trust and how the filmmaker and participant (subject) can learn from each other.”

Attiya Khan is currently based in Toronto, where she is working on her second documentary, Weathering—a film about the impact of racism on women’s experiences during pregnancy, childbirth, and post-partum.

There will be a screening of A Better Man, including a Q&A with Khan on March 10th, 2019, organized by The Berlin Feminist Film Week. Alternatively, check out the A Better Man website to find a screening near you.

To learn more about The Berlin Feminist Film Week, you can read our interview with its founder, Karin Fornander.

Text: Charlotte Hölter