Filmmaker Emily Abt was one of Variety Magazine’s “Top 10 Directors to Watch” and has produced and directed documentaries for PBS, OWN, MTV, Showtime and the Sundance Channel. Abt earned her MFA from Columbia University, receiving a Fulbright fellowship for her thesis film. Her documentary features include “Take It From Me” and “All of Us.” Abt’s first narrative feature, “Toe to Toe,” premiered at Sundance 2009 and was released in 2010 by Strand Releasing. “Audrey’s Run,” Abt’s most recent narrative feature which she wrote and will direct, is currently in development. (Press materials)
“Daddy Don’t Go” will premiere at the 2015 DOC NYC Film Festival on November 14. The documentary is co-directed by Andrew Nam Chul Osborne.
W&H: Please give us your description of the film playing.
EA: Captured over two years, “Daddy Don’t Go” is a feature-length documentary about four disadvantaged fathers in New York City as they struggle to beat the odds and defy the deadbeat-dad stereotype. And the odds are real — men living in poverty are more than twice as likely to become absent fathers than their middle-class peers [according to the] U.S. Census Bureau. By giving the viewer intimate access into the daily lives of its subjects, “Daddy Don’t Go” removes the negative lens through which many underprivileged fathers are currently viewed and offers audiences a new image of the American family.
W&H: What drew you to this story?
EA: I’m a former New York City caseworker, and “Daddy Don’t Go” is my third documentary feature captured within the context of urban poverty. So I’ve spent a lot of time with men like the ones featured in “Daddy Don’t Go.” My previous films have all featured women subjects and protagonists, but I always felt pulled towards the stories of the men in their lives as well.
“Daddy Don’t Go” pays homage to every man I’ve ever met who negates the “deadbeat dad” stereotype with a deep love for his children. These men, much like my own father, are often trying to be the dads they themselves never had. The negative lens through which urban fathers are currently viewed can only be undone by work from many angles — political, legal and social. I want to contribute to this effort by bringing new and positive images of urban fatherhood to a national audience.
W&H: What was the biggest challenge in making the film?
EA: Access was difficult at times. Who wants a camera in their face while they’re going through a crisis? The men in our film have been extremely courageous in allowing us capture them even during their darkest, most vulnerable moments. I remember standing in court, praying that Alex, one of the film’s subjects, would continue to grant us permission to film him. Given the difficult circumstances, the judge asked Alex to re-state his permission before she allowed us to capture the proceedings. He could have shut down our whole operation with a single word, but instead he gave the judge a solemn nod. In that moment, I knew our bond was real.
W&H: What do you want people to think about when they are leaving the theater?
EA: I want people who watch “Daddy Don’t Go” to empathize with the fathers in our film and the millions of men with similar struggles. Our court system and overall culture still very much treats men as “second-class parents.” We still primarily value fathers in terms of their ability to provide for their children financially versus their ability to be nurturing caretakers. This antiquated way of viewing fathers needs to change. It hurts men and women alike, but most especially, children. A man who doesn’t have a job or can’t afford child support can still be there for his kids. We must find a way to empower disadvantaged men to stay present for their children against the odds.
W&H: What advice do you have for other female directors?
EA: The women directors I most admire, and want to be like, are those who possess strong technical skills. Directors like Jennifer Steinman and Geeta Gandbhir who are also gifted editors. And cinematographers like Reed Morano and Rachel Morrison who also direct. These women get it right. Pay your bills with a technical skill that also boosts your ability to direct. Film is a complete smush of art and science, so you have to fully embrace the technical aspects of the medium in order to succeed.
W&H: What’s the biggest misconception about you and your work?
EA: The biggest misconception about “Daddy Don’t Go” is that it isn’t a feminist film. Even though it focuses on men, it’s actually my most feminist film to date. If I did my job well, then it will inspire millions of men to “lean in” to their parenting roles. That’s a very good thing for women, mothers and children.
“Daddy Don’t Go” is also a feminist film in terms of how it was made. “Daddy Don’t Go” was created by a collective of filmmakers that includes myself, Andrew Nam Chul Osborne (the film’s co-director and DP), Keryn Thompson (producer) and Suzzette Burton (producer). Our team is a diverse group of filmmakers driven by our shared passion for the subject and themes within “Daddy Don’t Go.”
We began working on the film when my eldest daughter was an infant, so it was produced bit by bit in a collaborative manner over the course of four years while we all juggled other paying jobs and responsibilities.
My co-director Andrew stepped in for shoots that involved last-minute travel or late nights when I felt I had to be with my girls.
Our awesome production attorney, Robert Seigel, carefully crafted agreements that reflected our circumstances and values. Communication, patience and transparency were key.
We felt this movie had to be made, so we did it against the odds in the only way we could — slowly. And the film has greatly benefited from that: It is a longitudinal study of men trying to parent against the odds. You get to watch our subjects evolve and their children grow up, both very powerful things to witness.
W&H: How did you get your film funded? Share some insights into how you got the film made.
EA: We raised $83,000 on Kickstarter and received grants from several sources including the Jerome Foundation, NYSCA, NYFA and the Yip Harburg Foundation. We struggled to pay our bills throughout the entire process, and none of the producers or directors have been paid yet.
You certainly don’t go into making social-justice documentaries for the cash. That said, the mission drives you against the odds. When it came to fundraising, we always said to ourselves, “How can we get over this rock we keep crashing into? Let’s get a ladder and climb over it!”