Filmmaker Denali Tiller started capturing footage of a former inmate’s life four years ago. A Rhode Island School of Design student at the time, she soon was introduced to a few children of inmates serving prison sentences for violent crimes.
On Monday, Tiller’s project, “Tre Maison Dasan,” is scheduled to air on most PBS stations as part of the series “Independent Lens.” It comes after the Albuquerque woman filmed more than 350 hours of three Rhode Island boys coping with incarcerated parents.
The film follows Tre Janson, Maison Teixeira, and Dasan Lopes over three years as they struggle with anger, loneliness and uncertainty from having a parent behind bars.
The Albuquerque Academy graduate said the boys — and their parents — invited her and her crew into their lives despite the emotional toll before them. Sometimes, Tiller handed over the camera and let the boys capture images.
Other times, Tiller sat silently in a corner and watched the boys experience regular issues of growing up like wearing Spiderman costumes or listening to music.
“Through building a friendship, they began to build ownership of their own stories,” Tiller said. She said was also honor that the families of color allowed her, a white woman, into their world.
But it was through the captured interaction with the parents where Tiller said she felt viewers could see what the children experience.
In one scene, Tre cries uncontrollably in front of his father and inquiries when he’s coming home. Later in the film, an older Tre wears an ankle bracelet after getting into trouble, shares stories with his father about how annoying the bracelets are when they have to be charged. His father laughs and shares his own memories, then stops.
“This ain’t normal,” the father laments while holding back tears.
In another scene, Maison and his grandmother prepare a gift Maison wants to give a girl he likes. The grandmother worries Maison’s heart will be broken. That evening, Maison calls his dad to give him a play-by-play: he asked the girl to be his Valentine, and she said yes.
“Yes! Oh my god, I’ve been so freaking stressed out all day,” his dad yells on the phone.
Maison, now 14, says he hopes the film opens minds about the lives of children of prisoners. “There is a lot of stigmas that the children of incarcerated parents will end up like there. That’s not true,” Maison said. “Even with our parents in prison, we keep moving. It doesn’t define us.”