ABC documentary 'Call Me Dad' explores what happens when violent men try to change

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Sophie Wiesner

'Call Me Dad' follows a group of men through a behaviour change program for family violence perpetrators who want to change.

'Call Me Dad' follows a group of men through a behaviour change program for family violence perpetrators who want to change. Photo: Call Me Dad

When I was a little girl, home was a safe place. Somewhere I could rest, play and learn. I was very lucky.

My own mother was not so lucky. Behind closed doors, my grandfather was violent and abusive. Most of his abuse was directed towards my grandmother. There were nights that Mum would lie awake, terrified that her mother would be seriously harmed, or even murdered. On several occasions, the police were called. No charges were ever laid. No interventions, legal or community based, were ever proposed. At that time in Australia, we took the view that family violence is and should be a private matter.

At the time of writing, 78 women have been violently killed in Australia this year. Not all these women are victims of family violence, but in the majority of cases, the accused is a member of the victim's family, and the perpetrators are usually men. They are often dads, or grandfathers, like mine.

Sophie Wiesner.

Sophie Wiesner. Photo: Supplied

What's missing from the stories we hear about family violence is a really brave conversation with and about those who perpetrate abuse.

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Different types of programs for male perpetrators of family violence are currently being run across the country. They are called Men's Behaviour Change Programs. They are usually hidden from view, and the subject of much contention within the family violence sector. Over the past two years, I have been working on a documentary that follows a group of men through just one of these programs.

The first time I attended a program like this, my jaw fell to the floor. One by one, each man shared a story of falling in love and starting a family, followed by accounts of inflicting abuse, terror and irreparable damage upon the very people they claimed to love.

I was horrified. But at the same time, my heart ached. These men's lives were more than just a list of offences. They weren't just monsters, lurking in the shadows. They were here because they wanted change. Not just for themselves, but also for their families. I could see they were flesh and blood, struggling and hoping, just like the rest of us.

Call Me Dad gives the audience unprecedented access to a confidential and complex process. It allows us to understand family violence from the point of view of those doing the harm, rather than those who have suffered the damage. Through the lens of a perpetrator program, I believe we have an opportunity to gain a rare insight into the attitudes, behaviours and aspects of our culture that give rise to family violence.

In a very early scene I filmed, one of the documentary participants, Nathan, defends a decision he made to verbally abuse his teenage daughters earlier that afternoon. He defends his actions by telling the counsellors about his long and difficult day at work, implying that his role as breadwinner somehow excuses his nasty behaviour. The counsellors skilfully reflect his justification back at him. In  that moment, Nathan is chastened, and we are left to reflect on the ways in which economic power can be used or misused inside a relationship.

'Accountability' is a big word in this kind of specialised counselling work, and one of the key objectives of behaviour change programs is to bring the participants to an understanding that violence is a choice, and that they are accountable for their choices to be abusive, and the harm that results. Interestingly for me, when I asked several participants why they had chosen to accept the invitation to be part of the documentary, several said they welcomed the additional 'accountability' they expected the cameras would bring. Even they were sick of hiding from the abuse, and the pain that it caused.

At the beginning of filming, one of the documentary participants, Sasko, was resolved to share the story of his participation in the program, for better or for worse. His resolve was shaken however, when his wife called one of the counsellors and shared the details of an incident of physical violence that took place at home the night before. When I spoke with Sasko about what had happened, he was appalled at himself, and terrified of the consequences. Two nights later, Sasko attended group, and in front of the counsellors, the group participants, and the cameras, he shared his version of what had happened. To my surprise, he took full responsibility for the abuse. He was overcome with sorrow and shame. While his remorse could not possibly undo the harm, his willingness to take responsibility seemed to me a significant step.

We need to engage men, all men, in the national conversation we are having about family violence. I hope these stories will help countless Australians, people like my grandmother, who should never have had to endure the abuse that she did.

Call Me Dad does not seek to identify a single solution to this complex social problem, nor to demonstrate perfect practice for this kind of counselling work. The film does not seek to redeem these men, nor excuse the harm their actions have caused.

It does seek to deepen our understanding of family violence, and what kind of change is required, both individual and cultural, to address it. I think we can all learn from these men's stories of hope and struggle. If we want to live in a safer and fairer society, then we cannot ignore the experiences of those individuals who have learned to use violence to exert power and control over their partners and children. Some people who abuse will never change, but under the right circumstances, with the right supports and guidance, some will.

Sophie Wiesner is the director & co-producer of Call Me Dad, which airs on November 26, 8:35pm, on ABC.

If you or someone you know is impacted by sexual assault, domestic or family violence, call 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or visit www.1800RESPECT.org.au