A Better Man in the classroom

OSSTF/FEESO partners with documentary co-producers

Attiya and Steve at a coffee shop. Photo source mediaspace.nfb.ca/epk/a-better-man

On a hot summer night 22 years ago, 18-year-old Attiya Khan ran through the streets, frightened for her life. She was fleeing her ex-boyfriend Steve, who’d been abusing her on a daily basis. Now, all these years later, Attiya has asked Steve to meet. She wants to know how he remembers their relationship and if he is willing to take responsibility for his violent actions.

This emotionally raw first meeting, filmed by Attiya with Steve’s consent, is the starting point for a new documentary feature, A Better Man. The rough footage also marks a new beginning in Attiya’s own recovery process—as well as an important starting point for Steve. For the first time ever, he speaks of the abuse and cracks opens the door to dealing with the past.

Illuminating a unique paradigm for domestic violence prevention, A Better Man offers a fresh and nuanced look at the healing and revelation that can happen for everyone involved when men take responsibility for their abuse. The film also serves as a call-to-action for audience members to play new roles in challenging domestic violence, whether in their own relationships or as part of a broader movement for social change.

From the very outset of A Better Man’s journey, the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation (OSSTF/FEESO) recognized the film’s potential as a catalyst for learning. The A Better Man team was proud to accept a platinum-level donation from OSSTF/FEESO to the film’s record-setting crowd-funding campaign in 2014. The strength of OSSTF/FEESO’s commitment to our film is just the latest incarnation of the union’s long history of support for initiatives that engage men and boys in ending violence against women, including the White Ribbon Campaign’s What Makes a Man conference.

Three years after OSSTF/FEESO and A Better Man joined forces, the film staged its world premiere on April 30, 2017 at the prestigious Hot Docs film festival in Toronto. OSSTF/FEESO is also collaborating with A Better Man co-producers Intervention Productions and the National Film Board (NFB) to develop a learning module based on the film for secondary schools.

Our teen years are a time when many of us begin to develop more concrete ideas and values surrounding love, relationships and intimacy. As schools increasingly support their students in building the skills for healthy relationships, it’s equally important that teenagers know which attitudes and behaviours can be unhealthy or abusive. Classrooms and hallways can also be crucial sites for learning how to support friends who may be using or experiencing violence in their relationships. Abuse is a reality in the lives of many young people, and
OSSTF/FEESO members play a vital role in helping students navigate these challenging situations as safely and effectively as possible.

In addition to the tangible skills with which the A Better Man learning module will equip students, it will also serve as a springboard for them to consider larger social and political questions. These questions may include why some people are more likely to use violence against a partner than others, what it means to take responsibility when we hurt the people we care about, and what justice can look like on both interpersonal and societal levels. By exploring these heady questions with their peers, under the guidance of dedicated educational workers, students will come away from this module with a clearer sense of their own values and a strengthened capacity to shape the world in which they live.

In May 2017, a team of OSSTF/FEESO members began writing the module, designed for grade 12 students in courses such as sociology, anthropology, gender studies and psychology. The module will span several classes to allow adequate time for introduction of the issues, screening of the film, and group work and/or creative projects to unpack their thoughts and feelings about the film and its key themes. Following the film’s broadcast premiere on TVO, we will pilot the module in select schools with the leadership of a small group of OSSTF/FEESO members, who will receive member-led training and support to undertake these difficult discussions with students. Once we have gathered feedback on the pilot to help refine the module and the member training, the module will undergo a broader release and eventual publication on the NFB’s online learning platform.

The timeliness of this kind of programming for Ontario high schools could not be more pronounced. According to a 2013 Statistics Canada report, the rate of violent crime against young women aged 15 to 24 was 42 per cent higher than the rate for women aged 25 to 34, and nearly double the rate for women aged 35 to 44. The study also found that young women aged 15 to 24 were the most vulnerable to certain types of dating violence, namely sexual violations. Approximately every six days, a woman in Canada is killed by her intimate partner.

Despite these startling statistics, in North America, relatively little has been invested in the rehabilitation of men who have used violence with a view to preventing future instances of abuse. The UN Human Rights Council’s resolution on eliminating domestic violence emphasizes the important role that men and boys can play, and encourages them to become strategic partners and allies. It also stresses the importance of effectively responding to violence against boys as well, in order to break intergenerational cycles of violence. Tackling these issues will require changes in societal norms and changes in behaviour within individuals—both of which the A Better Man learning module is poised to contribute to in a meaningful way.

Together we can build capacity among our students to cultivate healthy relationships, support people experiencing violence, and encourage people who use violence to take responsibility for changing their behaviour. As the film demonstrates, when men who use violence engage in a process of being accountable to the person they harmed, the positive impact on the survivor’s own healing journey can be significant and lasting. We look forward to seeing the seeds of change OSSTF/FEESO members will nurture in school communities across Ontario with A Better Man, as we work together to bring an end to intimate partner violence.

Members interested in participating in the A Better Man learning module pilot program can contact Rosemary Judd-Archer at rosemary.judd-archer@osstf.ca. Visit abettermanfilm.com to learn more about the film or sign up for the mailing list. A Better Man will be screening at Ted Rogers Hot Docs Cinema in Toronto from June 9–21, 2017.

About Steph Guthrie
Steph Guthrie is a learning consultant focused on gender-based violence and social justice. She is currently the Impact Producer for A Better Man.

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