It’s well-known that when someone goes to prison, it impacts their entire family. This universal truth is exemplified in the Sundance breakout documentary Daughters. Heartbreaking, joyous, and eye-opening, this first-time effort from documentarian Natalie Rae and community activist Angela Patton looks at how restrictions made inside American prisons ultimately hurt the children of inmates and how important the father/daughter relationship is.
Daughters follows a ten-week program in a DC jail, where male inmates take parenting classes during that time. There they talk about their own childhoods, personal patterns, and current relationships with their children and their children’s mothers. They also build a bond between each other. At the end of the ten weeks, their daughters are brought to the jail for a father/daughter dance.
The filmmakers spend as much time, if not more, following the inmates’ daughters as they get ready for the dance and process the possibility of touching their fathers again. In a stand-out moment, one girl confesses she hasn’t been able to physically hold her dad in three years due to 2014 regulations that have limited “touch visits”.
For many of the young women in the program, the upcoming event brings complicated emotions. Aubrey Smith, 5 when we first meet her, is excited to see her father but doesn’t fully understand. When we first meet Santana Stewart, she is about 10 years old. Living with her mother and two younger sisters, she resigns herself to never have children and not get married until she is 45. She blames this mentality on her father, Mark, who has been in and out of prison most of her life.
It’s about halfway through Daughters when the actual dance occurs. In one of the most moving moments of the film, the girls are reunited with their dads, and in a twist I didn’t see coming, Santana runs to her father screaming “Daddy!”. The film’s last hour is filled with these heartwrenching small moments of children reaching out for the love and guidance of a parent. You learn that 95% of the men who complete this program don’t reoffend. The filmmakers never share what each inmate is in for, because it doesn’t matter. Nothing should keep a child from being about to hug their dad or hold his hand.
Despite its exquisite composition and moving story, Daughters is directed by two newcomers. The first is Natalie Rae, a first-time director with only three music videos under her belt. Her partner is Angela Patton, who is also a first-time director, is the CEO of Girls for a Change and the co-founder of Camp Diva. It’s the latter program that started and piloted the “Date with Dad Dance Program” in Richmond, VA. While some may believe that the founder and leader of a program shouldn’t direct a film about her work, Patton chooses to focus on the daughters rather than the organization.
Daughters’ last 20 minutes are spent reconnecting with the girls three, four, and even five years after that first initial dance. Some stories are where you’d expect them to be, others are joyous triumphs or devastating surprises. It’s in the latter where you wish filmmakers spent more time on giving more context to those moments that payoff. Overall, Daughters is a well-crafted and important film about the effects of the legal system on those who are the purest definition of innocent.
Daughters boasts celebrity producers like Kerry Washington and Jessica Seinfeld and was just acquired by Netflix.