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‘Daughters’ Filmmakers on Why the Sundance Docu About Girls and Their Incarcerated Dads Is a Love Story

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In 2013, Angela Patton gave a TEDWomen talk that described a father-daughter dance for incarcerated dads and their daughters. That talk was viewed over a million times and inspired the documentary “Daughters,” which has its world premiere Monday at the Sundance Film Festival.

In the film, Patton, who in the past decade has helped arrange approximately 15 Daddy Daughter Dances across the nation, and co-director Natalie Rae follow four young girls preparing for the event with their fathers in a prison in Washington, D.C. For some of the girls, the dance will be the only time they can touch or hug their fathers during sentences, some of which are as long as 20 years. The docu capture the girls as they get ready for the dance, while also filming the incarcerated fathers as they attend a part of the 12-week program within the jail that is meant to strengthen their relationship with their daughters. The film combats harmful stereotypes about those doing time while also highlighting how essential fathers are to girls.

Variety spoke to Patton and Rae before the premiere.

In the docu, we meet the incarcerated fathers, but we never are told why they are in prison. Why did you decide not to include that information?

Rae: Because the importance for a daughter to have a father is really outside of the point of why the father is in prison. It really doesn’t matter what the fathers have done in terms of the girls deserving love.

Patton: When the girls decided to have this dance in the jail, the number one thing that they didn’t want people to say was that their fathers didn’t deserve (the dance) because of the crime they committed. The relationship that they may have had with their fathers prior to them being incarcerated was what was important to them. They were like, I just want to be with my father, the father who used to do homework with me or cook with me and play with me. So why the father was incarcerated is not the point (of this film). The point is for (the audience) to see this film as a love story.

You had extraordinary access to the prison. Not only did you film the dance, which took place within the prison, but you also had access to the facility while the fathers prepared for the event. How did you get that access?

Rae: A woman named Clinique Chapman in Washington D.C. asked Angela about bringing the dance to D.C. So Angela and I flew out there and decided that if we were going to have the dance there, we wanted to capture the whole thing. We wanted to show the power of this program. It was so amazing that (Chapman and the D.C. prison) said yes. They gave us permission to film everything, including the powerful fatherhood circle that takes place over the three or four months that leads up to the dance.

The dance is joyful and sad, especially when the girls have to say goodbye to their respective dads. You filmed all four daughters after the dance. Was that difficult?

Patton: People do worry about, well if these girls see their dads at the dance, how do they feel when they leave? But every girl who has participated in the 10 years that I’ve done these dances, none of them regret it. Even though emotions can be high, at the end of the day the girls are appreciative. Also the father starts to create some change as well because now he sees what he may have done and he wants to make things better.

What do you hope audiences are talking about after they watch “Daughters”?

Patton: I want them to walk away, seeing that these individuals are human. They deserve second chances. When one family member is incarcerated, the entire family is impacted by this one decision that someone in the family made, specifically if it’s your father or your mother. I want people to walk away, understanding that one decision can change a lot of things.

Is one of the goals of the film to help increase the amount of Daddy Daughter Dances happening around the country?

Patton: The goal is actually to start an impact campaign around one of the issues that the girls shared with us (while filming) which was about visitation practices. Natalie and I would interview the girls and their main concern was not being able to touch their fathers. Dances in the jail are great and we can do them all as long as they allow us to. But the reason that this dance is happening in the jail is because there’s limited touch. I’m not saying that the dances should not continue, but the goal is to solve the problem. So the goal is to see how young people can have access to their families without feeling disconnected and feeling like they don’t have a personal connection to (their father or mother) because they can’t smell, touch or kiss them.