Husband, father, abuser – can a bad man change?
CALL ME DAD puts an uncompromising spotlight on voices that are rarely heard - the male perpetrators of family violence. The 60-minute film also shines a light on a potentially powerful behaviour change program for men with a history of violence. It is also the first time anywhere in the world, television cameras have been allowed to film inside a men's behaviour change program. Call Me Dad will air on the ABC at 8.30pm on November 26.
THE fragile beams of a Monday's dying light push weakly against the encroaching dusk filling this anonymous suburban classroom.
The sounds of kids chattering and scribbling in school books faded hours ago.
They are replaced by the aimless chatter of six men rifling through a bunch of nametags piled on a teacher's desk.
One of the small white rectangles belongs to a bloke called Justin - a tall rangy fellow with work-hardened hands and the shadow of a beard marking the skin of his lined leathery face.
The father-of-two looks at the ground and speaks of missing "me kids" in his quintessential Aussie drawl.
"I've been controlling the money," he says to the strangers sitting with him in a tight semi-circle.
"I've been controlling her friends.
"I've done everything from grab her, to hit her, to hold her on the ground - a lot of things that were way out of line."
This is the first time the 40-year-old has ventured into the confines of men's behaviour change group Heavy M.E.T.A.L.
It's a place where drinking, disrespectful behaviour towards women and tardiness are expellable sins.
The hard-working tree surgeon speaks haltingly, struggling to admit that he is a violent abuser who beat his former partner so badly that he broke her collarbone.
"I've been getting told a lot that I'm an angry, angry man," Justin says in a "hard done by" tone of voice.
"Alcohol was getting to be a major factor.
"I had to do something about my own self, regardless of what was happening in me life.
"I was probably going to end up in the ground."
Justin's father died when he was five and his childhood was scarred by violence and alcoholism - a history he is repeating on his own children.
Justin acknowledges the woman he spent 19 years with is never going to forgive him, but he hopes this 16-week voluntary program will help him mend his fractured relationship with his 11-year-old son and 18-year-old daughter.
"Me boy doesn't talk a lot," he says trying to hold back tears.
"He's a confused kid at the moment.
"Maybe I didn't show him as much attention as I should have."Hopefully I'll be able to salvage some years with him."
Justin is one of three Heavy M.E.T.A.L clients who share their stories in Call Me Dad - a 60-minute documentary directed by Sophie Wiesner.
During the group's sessions the men justify their violence and emotional abuse, they all play the victim card and they try to minimise their transgressions by blaming the women and the children they have abused.
Angry outbursts are common as they relive the indefensible and begrudgingly admit their actions were wrong.
"I was in trouble for most of me adolescent life so for me to come from what I was to where I am now is a big step," Justin says.
"Everyone wants to tell me that this is wrong and that is wrong ... don't expect me to change overnight.
"You don't just change over night."
There are no happy endings in Call Me Dad, but the film does show Justin and his fellow "low to medium range" perpetrators - Sasko and Nathan - as trying to accept that they are the bad guys.
Wiesner presents an unflinching view of the journey each man takes along the road to possible redemption.
The first-time film maker says she was shocked by each man's story, but Justin's tale of destruction really opened her eyes to what countless women and children go through each day in Australia.
"When I first spoke to him he said he had broken his partner's collarbone and then in the next breath he seemed to minimise that act and talked about her abuse towards him," Wiesner tells APN Newsdesk.
"I asked him 'Have you ever been frightened of her?' and he said 'No'.
"These guys had chosen to be really violent towards their partners or former partners and at the same time seemed somehow not to realise the impact of that … they were trying to justify those actions.
"Listening to the accounts of their previous relationship was chilling and frightening."
For a second the program seems to work as Justin - who thinks crying is for "princesses" - manages to give his son an awkward hug around the shoulders.
But the moment is gone as fast as it started as Justin breaks Heavy M.E.T.A.L's strict no-drinking code.
Program founder David Nugent gives the abuser a second chance, allowing him to remain in the program despite the transgression.
But many months after filming ended, Mr Nugent reveals Justin is still a long way from having healthy and safe relationships.
The behaviour change counsellor says Justin will not shed his violent nature until he beats the bottle.
"We're still working with Justin, he's still struggling," Mr Nugent, who has worked with thousands of violent men over the past 15 years, says.
"If he continues to work he will be better but sometimes alcohol can get the better of you - we take 20 steps forward with him then suddenly, bam, we'll be back to square one."
*For domestic violence support, phone DVConnect on 1800 811 811, Men's Line on 1800 600 636, Domestic Violence Line on 1800 656 463 or 1800RESPECT (1800 737 732).
- APN NEWSDESK