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DC/DOX 2024: 'Daughters' is a Tribute to Loving Fatherhood, Despite and Through

This review is part of my ongoing coverage of DC/DOX film festival. See also: Hollywoodgate, Secret Mall Apartment and Soundtrack to a Coup d'État.


Day 3 took me to another free screening, this time in the basement of the National African American Museum. The event was lively, and there seemed to be quite a bit of press present, which is fitting – the documentary was shot in D.C. I also nearly made contact with Natasha Lyonne, whose bright orange hair was unmistakable in the row in front of me. I made fleeting eye contact with her, and then very spastically turned around to avoid gaping in her face. Tariq Trotter (aka Black Thought) from The Roots introduced the film, and in honor of Father’s Day, made a “stairs are always up to something” dad-joke truly worth groaning over.

Films about incarceration never go down easy, and Daughters is no different. The documentary explores an iteration of Girls for a Change's Date with Dad program, which connects young Black girls to their fathers in jail by putting on a daddy-daughter dance. The men are first subject to a 12-week parent training/therapy program, in which they are reminded of their responsibilities as fathers and encouraged to discuss the barriers to being in their kids’ lives. Some have been in and out of jail since their teen years, and others are serving extended sentences. 

Directors Natalie Rae and Angela Patton, the latter of whom serves as the CEO of the organization, take care to document both fathers and daughters on the road to the dance. Understandably, feelings vary: some of the girls are extremely enthusiastic about spending this time with their dads, while others are mistrustful from years of abandonment. The mothers' perceptions are also incorporated into the storyline. 


The lead-up to the dance had much of the audience crying happy tears. A montage of young girls beautifying themselves and fathers shedding their orange prison garb for formal eveningwear is as poignant as they come. After months or years of separation, the reunions are heartwrenching. Even the highly skeptical Santana, who pledges not to have children until she’s 45, turns into a softie at the sight of her father. The fun and humor peak when the duos hit the dancefloor, although the reality of the occasional emotional incongruence is never lost. Sometimes it can be a little awkward, and neither party knows exactly what to say. However, when the denouement arrives, no father nor daughter is quick to say goodbye. Who knows the next time that they’ll see each other? 

The child protagonists’ original ages range from 5 to 14, but the filmmakers continued to check in with the girls in the years after the dance. Aubrey, an indisputably bright girl who informed us that she is taking classes four years above her age level during the post-film Q&A, was five years old at the beginning of filming. She is the documentary’s heart, always seeing the best in her father, Keith, and offering astonishing wisdom to him in his situation. Unfortunately, Keith had one of the longest sentences: seven years. Later, that punishment is extended to 10. 


At each post-dance check-in, Aubrey appears more jaded and disinterested in his situation. The film notes that many prisons have moved to no-touch visitation, or do not permit in-person visitation at all. The pandemic certainly didn’t improve the isolation of convicts from their families, and the slow passage of time has a cooling tendency. It’s heartbreaking to watch a young girl, despite her infinite successes, lose the paternal connection she had as a toddler. 


The documentary is decorated with musical needle drops, often initiated by the daughters, who sometimes feel more comfortable expressing themselves through lyrics or dance than their own words. For this reason, and what appears to be Natalie Rae’s transcendentalist touch, the film achieves numerous metaphysical breathers via song. Additional praise should be given to Kelsey Lu’s soundtrack and Michael Cambio Fernandez’s dreamy cinematography.

Crucially, it is never explained why each father ended up in jail; that is beside the point. The film is not trying to convince you that they are innocent, or that they must atone. The directors' empathetic perspective seeks to remove the “convict” labels that the men will inevitably have attached to them for the rest of their lives and present them as human beings facing undesirable circumstances. Stripping the men of whatever qualities they’ve come to believe as inherent to their conduct, the fatherhood counselor tells them that they have a choice to change their lives. When asked what advice he would give to his younger self, panelist and father Mark (who is four years out from prison) asserted, “If you want something you’ve never had before, you gotta do something you never did before.” 


The audience at the screening was affectionate toward the local girls on the panel, applauding at each shared development, including the fact that one of the daughters now has a daughter of her own. The success of Date with Dad speaks for itself: 95% of men who participate in the program do not end up returning to prison. Whether they are experiencing the best possible quality of life post-prison or not, the renewed commitment to family has transformed their existence. It is a highly solution-oriented film, even if it may reinforce traditional familial dynamics. At the end of the day, the widespread incarceration of Black men is a major societal ill, and any program that seeks to humanize their plight and offer life-affirming rehabilitation is worth celebrating. As the paternity counselor affirms, “When our families are intact, our communities are strong.”


Daughters premiered at Sundance Film Festival, where it won the Audience Award in the documentary competition. It will be streaming on Netflix in August.


Conclusion

As a final aside, though it does not quite fit in this review, I must acknowledge a moment over the weekend that stood out to me. While attending the Subject/Matter filmmaker panel, I watched two young subjects sit side by side. One was a young man from Southeast Ohio, whose family has been afflicted by the opioid epidemic. The other was a young girl from Iraq who had been held hostage by ISIS. It was the boy's first time leaving Ohio, and likely the girl's first time leaving her country. They were brought together on a panel to broadcast their unique traumas but nevertheless related in their journey. Storytelling brings the most unexpected people together. That's why I love film festivals.


-Lydia

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