A Better Man: Crowdfunding Compassion

Production

One summer night over twenty years ago Attiya Khan found herself running for her life. She was fleeing her first boyfriend Steve, the young man who’d been abusing her for two years. Escape didn’t come easily. When she finally bolted and ran, he pursued her. But she was quick on her feet and got away, a traumatized but determined teenager beginning to realize she deserved more out of life.

Khan is now a professional counsellor who advocates for survivors of violence. She no longer lives in fear of Steve — but she’s got some questions she’d like to ask him. In an inspired and courageous move, she has reached out to her former abuser, inviting him to participate in A Better Man, a documentary project that sets out to reframe the complex issue of domestic abuse.

The feature doc is currently in post-production in Toronto, co-produced by the newly established Intervention Productions and the NFB Ontario Studio. Christine Kleckner is producing for Intervention Productions and Justine Pimlott for the NFB. Lead executive producers are actor/director Sarah Polley, and Anita Lee, the executive producer of the NFB Ontario Studio.

The project has struck a resounding chord with citizen funders — and its 40-day crowdfunding pitch was one of the most successful in Canadian history. Its Indiegogo campaign exceeded its stated target by 50%, raising over $110,000 from over 1000 backers, from around the globe but primarily from Khan’s own Toronto community. Among those who stepped forward to help were author Margaret Atwood and musician Leslie Feist, along with various labour unions and anti-violence groups.

Here’s the campaign trailer:

“Poster child for documentary crowdfunding”

“The project has become a poster child for documentary crowdfunding,” says NFB producer Justine Pimlott. “Christine and her team deserve special credit on that front. They planned the campaign launch with great care, securing important donations even before the launch date, and working with women’s groups and organizations like the White Ribbon Campaign to prepare the terrain. The timing was right, and the campaign seemed to coincide with a new willingness to expand the public conversation about abuse.”

Crowdfunding has been integral to Kleckner’s financing strategy from the get-go. “Raising money from traditional sources was going to be challenging, we knew that from the start, so crowdfunding was always part of our plan,” she says. “We went with Indiegogo partly because they offer discounts to members of the Documentary Organization of Canada, but working with them has been great. Ayah Norris, who was still heading the Canadian documentary section at the time, gave super useful advice all along — about timing, strategy, what perks to offer and so on. It was Ayah who urged us to line up strategic advance donations, to get key organizations and individuals to agree to contribute immediately, as soon as the campaign launched, and that really got the ball rolling. Attiya herself did a lot of the footwork there, working her network of contacts.”

Timing was also important. “The period leading up to Christmas is apparently a good time to fundraise – another piece of useful advice we got from Indiegogo,” says Kleckner, “and by launching the campaign in late November, we were able to capitalize on relevant commemorative dates – November 25, which is the UN Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, and December 6, the anniversary of the Montreal massacre.”

The publicity generated by the campaign would help pave the way to additional financing. “We treated the crowdfunding initiative as a production in itself, with its own publicity and social media campaigns, and the media coverage played a big part in getting us to the table with other potential backers. We hadn’t applied to pitch at the Hot Doc Forum because we didn’t think we were eligible — we hadn’t lined up a broadcaster or major funder at that point. But when the Indiegogo campaign made the news, Hot Docs actually contacted us and suggested we apply. That put us in the same room with all the major funders and broadcasters.”

“A completely surprising angle on domestic violence”

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Khan’s novel approach to the subject matter has also been key to the funding success, says media strategist Tracey Friesen, who refers to A Better Man in Story Money Impact, her recently published guide to making and funding social-issue media. “Attiya Khan is presenting a completely surprising angle on male violence, one that’s both courageous and disarming,” says Friesen, a veteran documentary producer in her own right whose resumé includes a stint as executive producer of the NFB Pacific & Yukon Studio.   “Audiences generally don’t expect the male abuser to be presented in a vulnerable light, so there’s a new level a nuance here. She’s telling a story that humanizes everyone involved.”

The production team has been developing a detailed social impact strategy, and has retained Steph Guthrie, a Toronto-based gender justice consultant, as a dedicated impact producer. “A Better Man has huge potential to bring about constructive change,” says Pimlott, “There’s growing realization that we can’t address gender violence unless men are directly involved in the process, so Christine’s team has been developing partnerships with groups like Make It Our Business, which is an affiliate of Western University’s Centre for Research and Education on Violence Against Women and Children, and they’re also building on existing ties with school boards and trade unions.”

Michael Kaufman, co-founder of the White Ribbon Campaign, is one of many who’ve endorsed A Better Man. “It tackles some hard questions, foregoes simplistic solutions, and reaches out with both a challenge and deep compassion,” says Kaufman. “By doing all this, it provides us with a vision full of immense hope and possibility.” Read more endorsements at abettermanfilm.com.

“Attiya has always been very clear about her motivations,” says Kleckner. “She wants to make a film that will change attitudes and behaviours, so the notion of impact was deliberately integrated into the Indiegogo campaign and Hot Docs Pitch, and we’re already working with partners in three broad sectors — educational institutions, workplace environments, and policy makers. The Fledgling Fund and Women Make Movies have been very supportive, helping us to flesh out the whole outreach aspect of the project.”

The notion that media can spark change is built into the NFB’s institutional DNA. John Grierson, who established the NFB in 1939, firmly believed that film, and documentaries in particular, could advance the public good. “I received my early film training at Studio D back in the 80s,” says Pimlott, “and I’ve witnessed first hand how NFB productions can shape public debate. A Better Man fits perfectly into that tradition.”

Project reunites key creatives from Stories We Tell

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Khan, new to the world of film, is co-directing with Lawrence Jackman, a seasoned Toronto-based director and editor who has collaborated with Kleckner on several previous projects. Pictured above: Larry Jackman, Christine Kleckner, Attiya Khan and Justine Pimlott. Photo by Jennifer Rowsom.

“Attiya’s got great documentarian instincts,” says Kleckner. “Back in 2013, before I came onboard, she’d already organized a small but crucial shoot, filming a coffee house encounter where Steve agrees to meet and talk about their former relationship. It’s essential footage that made it into our Indiegogo trailer. But we wanted the team to include both women and men, and Larry brings a lot to the table. He’s got right temperament for this project, patient and calm.”

In 2014 Kleckner assembled a small crew to recreate and shoot another important episode from Attiya’s story – her flight through the dark streets of Kitchener. “It was still early days and we had to hustle to pull together a crew,” she says. “Sarah and I had worked with Iris Ng and we love her work, so we were delighted to get her onboard as DOP. It was a kind of test run, an exercise to see if we worked well together as a team.”

The production reunites a number of key creatives from the 2012 documentary hit Stories We Tell, which was directed by Polley and produced by Lee though the NFB Ontario Studio. Kleckner worked on Stories as production coordinator prior to launching her career as independent producer and establishing Intervention Production, and Iris Ng also directed the photography on Stories.

Executive producers on A Better Man are Sarah Polley, Kathy Avrich-Johnson, and Janice Dawe; Anita Lee for the NFB; and Jane Jankovic for TVO. Producers are Christine Kleckner for Intervention Productions and Justine Pimlott for the NFB.

A Better Man is co-produced by Intervention Productions and the NFB Ontario Studio, in association with TVO, which has the first broadcast window, and support from the Canada Media Fund’s POV Program, the OMDC and the Ontario Secondary School Teachers Federation (OSSTF). Development financing came from NFB, OMDC and Shaw Media Hot Docs.

Larry Jackman is currently nearing completion of the edit, and A Better Man is scheduled to launch in 2017. Learn more at abettermanfilm.com.

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Pictured above: co-directors Attiya Khan and Larry Jackman: assistant camera Jordan Kawai; producer Christine Kleckner; and DOP Iris Ng.