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Incarcerated fathers and daughters reunite at a daddy-daughter dance in Sundance documentary

PARK CITY, Utah (AP) — Angela Patton has devoted her career to listening to the needs of young girls. Over a decade ago, the CEO of the nonprofit Girls For a Change and founder of Camp Diva Leadership Academy helped start a program in Richmond, Virginia, that created a daddy daughter dance for girls whose fathers are in prison. The “Date With Dad” idea wasn’t hers, however. It came from a 12-year-old Black girl.

The popularity of a 2012 TEDWomen talk about the initiative, which has been viewed over 1 million times, had many filmmakers clamoring to tell the story. But she didn’t feel anyone was right until Natalie Rae came along.

“Natalie actually made the effort and put the energy in to come to visit with me, to meet the families that I have worked with in the past, and just to learn and be a willing participant,” Patton told The Associated Press in a recent interview.

The two began an eight-year journey as co-directors to make the documentary “Daughters,” which follows four young girls as they prepare to reunite with their fathers for a dance in a Washington, D.C., jail.

“Daughters,” which was executive produced by Kerry Washington, premiered in competition at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, where it is also seeking distribution.

With intimate moments inside the homes of the girls, and glimpses into the intensive 12-week therapy session the fathers participate in prior, “Daughters” paints a moving and complex portrait of fractured bonds and healing.

“It was just one of the most powerful stories I had ever come across,” Rae said. “For me, it was a beautiful example of what change can happen in the world when we listen to the wisdom of young women. This is a young Black girls’ idea, and she knew what her and her father needed.”

In the same spirit, the two filmmakers agreed that they wanted “Daughters” to be from the girls’ perspectives.

“I am always an advocate for them,” Patton said. “I hear them saying that ‘My dad is valuable to me but I’m really ticked off at him right now.’ Or 'My dad is great, and someone else is trying to tell me that he’s not and I want you to not see my father as the bad man because he made a poor decision. But he still loves me.' I’m hearing all of these lived experiences through many girls in the community. I want to see how we can help them."

Though Patton has for many years worked with Black families in D.C. and Richmond, for the film there would have to be another level of trust in establishing close relationships with the girls and their mothers, asking what they needed and were comfortable with and knowing when to turn the cameras on and off.

“You have to get to know the families. I come from understanding that in order for us to build trust in the community, I have to co-create with them,” Patton said. “I’ve been doing it for over 20 years. I kind of got a reputation... Sister Angela is what they call me. You know, 'She's got our back. She’s going to protect us.'”

Rae was a newcomer to this world, but Patton said that her co-director “took it to the next level” getting to know their subjects and earning their trust.

“These are really lifetime relationships,” Rae said. “Most of the time we’re not filming. It’s going and spending time being invited to see someone at the hospital, going to a birthday party. Aubrey (one of the subjects) and I made her dad a birthday cake one year and got to talk to him on the phone and just told him what it looked like.”

“Daughters” is what some people are calling a “three tissue” movie that is sure to pull at heartstrings. The filmmakers hope that it can also be an agent of change, a powerful example of the importance of visits in which girls can hug their fathers.

“We really want to show the impact on families and daughters from this system and incarcerated fathers and bring more awareness around the importance around touch visits and family connection,” Rae said.

Patton added: “I think there’s so many things to take away because it’s a film that just fills your spirit. You cannot leave not thinking that you should do something, even if it’s just to dial your father’s number, and just say, ‘I love you, dad.’”