Art Works Blog

Five Questions with Filmmaker Denali Tiller

Denali Tiller is very clear about why she made her documentary Tre Maison Dasan, which follows the lives of three boys whose parents are (or were) incarcerated. As she told us when we interviewed her during the AFI Docs film festival, “I didn’t make this film to be a filmmaker. I made this film to get to know [these boys] and get to know these stories and the issue more deeply.”

Tiller is also very clear that the film, her first feature, is about more than the effect of incarceration on families. She firmly believes that the lives of the title subjects—13-year-old Tre, 11-year-old Maison, and six-year-old Dasan—are much larger than the single fact of having a parent in prison. To that end, Tiller used her skills as a storyteller to empower the boys to tell their own stories, giving them opportunities to learn as much as they wanted about the filmmaking process, asking for and integrating their input on how to structure their sections of the film, and encouraging them to write the music that soundtracks the project. Here’s our interview with Tiller on what she wants her films to do and her desire to amplify voices that often go unheard while assiduously avoiding what she called “the white savior” trope.

NEA: What’s your mission statement as a filmmaker?

DENALI TILLER: I really feel that film can be a storytelling lens into people’s lives and different experiences. My own films are centered around an issue, but they’re not giving a perspective or giving a direct call to action. It’s just letting the lives unfold as I the filmmaker am experiencing them. There’s a lot of history in terms of “white savior” filmmaking and that’s something I’m really trying to actively work against. So for example in this film, [my goal was] finding a perspective that was ignored in criminal justice [stories]—children who have parents in prison—and then telling the story from their perspective, really opening up the film to be a lens into their lives in every aspect, not pushing the issue of incarceration. The film I think becomes this film about parental incarceration, but also about masculinity, child welfare, fatherhood, parenthood, motherhood, reentry. That sort of open process allows for much more to come through the learning process. The film itself can be a tool for many different issues across a spectrum instead of one-sided.

NEA: Where did this film start for you?

TILLER: I don’t have a history of incarceration in my own family and it honestly wasn’t a thing that I had considered as part of people’s lives until I met a woman who had been formally incarcerated for 17 years, Joyce Dixson-Haskett. She had two kids when she went in who were six and eight, and 23 and 25 when she came home. She was incarcerated for shooting and killing a man who was trafficking her. But when she got out she was most interested in what had happened to her kids. She has two boys, and the oldest one is still serving a life sentence. She got her master’s [degree] in social work after she got out and then she developed a psychological model to track the stages of grief and trauma that children go through when a parent is incarcerated. She’s from Detroit but [the program she created] was implemented in the prison in Rhode Island. She’s an amazing person; she’s become kind of mother figure to me. I was really interested in her story but mostly interested in her work. As I started tracking the effects of her work on children and families, I started going to visiting hours [at John J. Moran Medium Security Prison] which is where I met the kids [featured in my film]. That’s where the story evolved in terms of if I were to share this story of parental incarceration and the effects on children, it had to come from the kids themselves. I started working with Maison and Tre first, and they were just immediately really open and it became a collaboration with them. Then I met Dasan and his mom about a year later when we got access to the women’s facility and traced their story as she was released and coming home.

NEA: One of the things that struck me right away about the film was that the boys are credited with you as the filmmakers. Can you talk about how your structured the film and how you made the project collaborative?

TILLER: It can be alienating for kids to [have] someone coming in and putting a camera in their face, so from the very beginning I turned that around. My first interaction with all the kids was, "Here's all the equipment. You play with it." Through the process of making the film it really became about [asking the boys], “What do you want us to see? What is important for you and your story and your life?” It was a really open and collaborative process with the boys.

For example, with Tre he was really interested in music videos and he writes his [own] music so that became a part of the film. A lot of our filming with him was like, "Okay so let's go shoot a music video." So he would take us around the neighborhood and show us the things that for him he wanted to be part of his music video and through that we were able to see through his eyes his world and how he was perceiving his situation and circumstances.

With Maison, he was a really active participant and [he said things]like, "Let's do an interview, let's shoot this." We did the interview between him and his dad [that you see in the film] later in the process and that really came out of [asking] what did they want to do, what did they want to share, and what was the best way for them in their relationship be able to do that.

With Dasan, he's obviously a lot younger so my relationship with his mom was really close. She was the catalyst of like, "This is what part of my story that I want to be seen." With Dasan there was a lot of playing with the equipment. He'd be like, "Film me playing with Legos!"

We had over 300 hours of footage and that's where we could pull these intimate scenes that came out of this process of collaboration. They’re sharing their stories, they're giving us their voices, and I wanted that to be reflected in the film production itself as well. The boys actually also own legally own ten percent of the film.

NEA: How has working on this film changed the way you look at yourself as an artist?

TILLER: I don't know if it's changed me as much as it's led me to really understand my process and my practice and what interests me and what doesn't interest me. In filmmaking, the most exciting thing for me with these festivals is not the festivals themselves and not the audience screenings with the industry, but the screenings with communities and hearing the conversations that come out of that. One thing that we're talking about doing is actually recording and capturing the conversations that happen within these communities and then adding that to our collection [of work on the issues in the film] and, you know, figuring out what that means, how to share that with disparate communities that might have different perspectives or disagree but not talk to each other that often. The film process even continues beyond the product that is made.

NEA: What do you want your audience to take away from seeing Tre Maison Dasan?

TILLER: I mean it definitely depends on who's watching it. For film audiences, like I said, I really intentionally left out a specific call to action or a specific issue because issues evolve, so I wanted this film to have a life that could continue past whatever criminal justice reform bill happens. Past whatever happens in the next five, ten, fifteen years, the film can still resonate. I think that's where it's most powerful—in its portrayal of relationships and the intimacy we see between the kids and their parents despite the parents' incarceration, and its portrayal of boyhood and growing up and masculinity.

Obviously there are more specific goals with specific audiences in terms of communities of children affected by the issue, stakeholders like the U.S. representatives and senators we are meeting today. In terms of informing policy, prison administration and prisons in terms of really advocating for visitation and personal contact visitations between kids and their parents and dismantling any stigma about what those relationships look like and really pushing the importance of those relationships.

I think the main thing that I want audiences to leave with is this intimate experience of these boys. So for each person it's going to affect them and touch them in different ways, but if it can dismantle stigma against incarcerated individuals being able to be parents, if it can dismantle stigma against children of color and what their futures look like and how they're really affected by issues around them... If audiences leave and they just look at the world differently, interact with children in their lives differently, are a little more considerate and curious about what a child's situation is and not quick to judge them based on that situation, I think it's been successful.

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