During the Q&A session following the screening of Hitting Home on the ABC last night, a question was asked by a man named David Nugent, seeking to explore the possibility of educating men who have abused to change their behaviour. The response to his question wasn’t overly well received by the panel, but if they had seen the documentary Call Me Dad, which will screen tonight, their thoughts may have been different.
Call Me Dad is about an initiative that David Nugent, a former victim and abuser himself, runs called Heavy M.E.T.A.L (Men’s Education Towards Anger and Life) in Melbourne’s outer Eastern suburbs. Focusing on three men, we follow their journey in entering this program, and going through it for 16 weeks, and the various ups and downs of their lives during this period.
We spoke with Call Me Dad writer/director Sophie Wiesner about the project.
Obviously, being a documentarian, you have to stay neutral, but do you have feelings one way or another about the issues addressed in the film?
“A documentarian can never be neutral, nor do they need to be. When we write a treatment, frame a shot, or make selections for the edit, we express a point of view.
“In regards to the central question I pose in Call Me Dad, ‘Can a violent man change?’, I think yes, change is possible for some men who use abuse in their relationships. This point of view is based on academic research, research interviews, and most significantly, the experience I had making this film, where I witnessed change take place within the lives of men.”
Do you think that a man could have made this film?
“Yes. Though I think men do have quite a different experience of the world, and so were a man to have made it, I think he would have brought his own perspective, judgements and preconceptions.”
Some men bang on about masculine identity being in crisis, and I think that your film touches on this in a subtle way, but what are your thoughts on male identity?
“I think that as women have worked towards claiming more social, cultural and political power over several decades, some men have come to feel displaced, and understandably so. Their loss of power is real, and I think the blurring of prescribed modes of masculinity is deeply disorienting for some.
“For example, Nathan, a participant in Call Me Dad, comes to realise that whilst his own father assumed the role of ‘master of the house’, he cannot. The world has changed. Justin, another participant, comes to recognise that whilst he was told to ‘man up’ as a child, he should allow his son to show his emotions.
“While making this film I saw some men come to understand that they could not assume a traditionally ‘masculine’ role in their personal lives. In order to forge healthy relationships, they needed to cultivate both their ‘feminine’ and ‘masculine’ qualities. For some men embracing ‘feminine’ traits, such as showing vulnerability, nurturing others and being empathetic, is tremendously difficult, and challenging to their sense of who they are.”
Humanising abusers could be quite contentious. In your professional and personal circles, were there ever instances of people questioning your approach with the film?
“When I approached people who work with the survivors of family violence about this documentary project, they were very wary. They were concerned that the film would privilege the voices of perpetrators over those of survivors, and that a story that humanises abusers would run the risk of excusing or minimising the harm they had caused. I think I have managed to avoid doing this.
“I strongly believe that unless we understand the choices made by the people using abuse in their relationships, we cannot possibly stop the harm. It might feel appropriate or even important for us to reprimand, shame and banish those people who have harmed others, but ultimately, refusing to engage with the complexity of these people’s lives and circumstances does not shift behaviour, and does not change the story for the next generation.
“If we truly want change, we need to engage with and attempt to understand what is driving those who choose to be violent towards those they love.”
Do you know how the three men you focused on in the film are faring today?
“Nathan, Sasko and Justin are in regular contact with the David and Jacqui, and counsellors featured in the documentary. They are far from ‘fixed’, and they, and sometimes their partners and children, do still reach out for support from time to time. Most significantly, the women and children in the lives of all three men report that they feel safer, and better supported.”
Why these three men, and did you shoot others but narrowed it down to them?
“There were seven men that completed the majority of the course. Of those seven, I filmed extensively with five, and of those five, I featured three. In the end it was Nathan, Sasko and Justin who shared the most throughout the group process, and allowed me into their lives beyond it.”
Was it difficult gaining their trust? I imagine that them being in such a vulnerable place, it must have been hard to get them to cooperate.
“None of the men who appear in the film were compelled to cooperate, though many felt nervous about doing so. In most cases, I think they agreed to participate because they were genuinely seeking change. I think they hoped the added pressure of the cameras would improve their chances of achieving that. Some also want their own stories of hope and struggle to help others. I admire their decisions to participate, and hope their ambition of helping others can be realised through the broadcast of Call Me Dad and the roll out of the community screening campaign.”
There are parallels in the way the film unspools with more commercial shows in the reality television space. People tend to look down upon this genre, but when the subject matter is more socially relevant it can be used for good. Do you have any comments about that?
“I think some filmmakers are very snobbish about commercial television, they see it as junk food for the masses. But telling any kind of real story with real people involves a huge amount of relationship building, imagination, compassion and storytelling nous. I think some of our best storytellers today have risen through the ranks of entertainment television, and I think unlike more ‘worthy’ documentary filmmakers, people who’ve worked in television understand that a story must be visually rich, emotionally engaging and have a distinctive and provocative point of view. Being ‘important’ is not enough. If we’re going to tell stories for good, we need to move both our audience’s hearts and minds.”
Call Me Dad screens on Thursday November 26, at 8.35pm on ABC TV.