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NM filmmaker’s documentary follows children whose parents are incarcerated

Maison and his dad during Saturday visiting hours at John J. Moran Medium Security Prison in Cranston, R.I. (Courtesy of Jon Gourley)

Maison and his dad during Saturday visiting hours at John J. Moran Medium Security Prison in Cranston, R.I. (Courtesy of Jon Gourley)

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

The statistic piqued the interest of Denali Tiller: An estimated one in 14 American children is growing up with a parent in prison.

So the New Mexico filmmaker set out to tell the story of those kids and their parents.

After four years of working on her documentary – “Tre Maison Dasan” – it is going to air on PBS as part of the “Independent Lens” series. It will be shown at 10 p.m. Saturday on New Mexico PBS Channel 5.1.

“I started the project when I met a woman who was formerly incarcerated and heard the story about her children,” Tiller says. “She started a program in the Rhode Island Department of Corrections. I began the film about her and her story and the program.”

Then she met Tre, Maison and Dasan, who had parents who were locked up.

And that is the story she wanted to tell.

“I realized that these are kids that are going through this right now,” she says. “We really bonded right away. I wanted them to have their own voice.”

Tre is a charismatic yet troubled 13-year-old who hides his emotions behind a mask of tough talk and hard edges.

Maison is a funny, charming, hyperarticulate 11-year-old whose autism spectrum disorder presents itself through his ever-active mind and deep love for those around him.

Dasan is a shy and sensitive 6-year-old full of curiosity and empathy.

Although their parents are incarcerated for serious crimes, their strong and caring relationships with their children shatter stereotypes about those behind bars and remind us of the plight of the more than 1.7 million American children growing up with an incarcerated parent.

“As Tre, Maison and Dasan taught me about their worlds, I recognized that there was a need for a film that allowed children to speak for themselves, to elevate their voices in a way that fully represented their lives as they experience them,” Tiller says. “Through this participatory process, the audience is led through the ups and downs of life itself – an experience that is both riveting and personal, hilarious and heartbreaking, and values the complexity and nuance of these boys’ different realities.”

To do this, Tiller found herself being flexible as a filmmaker.

At times, the children wanted to take charge, and they filmed some footage. Other times, Tiller sat in the background and soaked up the stories.

By the time production was over, Tiller had more than 350 hours of footage.

It was a painstaking process to get the film down to the broadcast time of less than an hour.

“It was a collaborative process,” she says. “We were able to get the pivotal moments documented in the film.”

Creating art is something Tiller has always enjoyed.

She was born and raised in Albuquerque and is a graduate of Albuquerque Academy.

She left the Duke City to attend Rhode Island School of Design, and that’s where the film started more than four years ago.

“I recently came back for the Santa Fe Film Festival,” she said. “I love being from New Mexico, and my whole family is really supportive of my work.”

Tiller says the documentary was inspired by American writing icon Audre Lorde’s quote, “There is no thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives.”

“Maybe it starts with an issue and allowing people to show me, tell me and lead me through their stories,” Tiller says. “I was honored to be given the time to spend time with the boys and their families.”

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