As a law student and lawyer, I’ve worked on cases within the criminal justice system and within the child welfare system. Even with my experience on those cases, I didn’t always know the connection between the two systems: one in 14 American children have a parent who has been incarcerated.
To document their stories, director Denali Tiller made a film not about the statistics, or even the parents who are incarcerated, but about the children–told from their perspectives.
Her documentary, Tre Maison Dasan (2018), follows three children over the course of three years — and 300 hours of footage — including a parent who has recently been released, and two fathers were in the same jail at the time of filming.
All three children navigate a similar range of emotions: love, hurt, anger, fear, sadness, longing, even grief.
Many moments in the film show unexpected moments of maturity in the children, undoubtedly because they were forced to confront a situation that was never their fault, but something they must face on a daily basis.
Tiller’s access and permission to show vulnerable moments of these children’s lives is remarkable. In one scene, teenager Tre leaves his house while the camera follows him through the neighborhood. This scene shows the filmmaker is a concerned party, not just an impartial observer. She also captures when the children visit their parents in prison. Tiller has clearly earned her subjects’ trust to be present for those moments. The scenes are raw and emotional — and read as if the camera isn’t there.
During a Q&A at a screening of the film in Indianapolis at Heartland Film Festival, Tiller mentioned she probably spent more time with her subjects than an average documentary filmmaker, and continued to be in touch with them through the process of editing and as she was screening the film at festivals. However, she said, it was her first documentary feature film, so she was learning as she was going through the process and that just happened to be her process.
Ultimately, she presented the children’s stories in a way that gave them the dignity they deserve, without sugarcoating or leaving out the more upsetting moments in their daily lives.