Tre Maison Dasan: Three Boys Grow Up with Parents in Prison

Rhode Island filmmaker Denali Tiller directed a documentary named after three boys: Tre, Maison, Dasan. At the start of the film they are 13, 11, and 6 years old, and each has a parent (two fathers and one mother) incarcerated in the state prison, the Adult Correctional Institution in Cranston. The film is scheduled to make its Rhode Island premiere at the RI International Film Festival at 12:15pm on Saturday, August 11, at the Metcalf Auditorium in the RISD Museum. The boys in the film are expected to be at the screening, she said.

Documentary subjects Tre, Maison, and Dasan with director Denali Tiller.
Documentary subjects Tre, Maison, and Dasan with director Denali Tiller.

Tiller attended RISD where she now teaches as adjunct faculty. “I went to RISD for undergraduate and the film started as my senior thesis project there. I met a woman who is from Michigan and was incarcerated for 17 years in Michigan. She had two kids when she went in who were 6 and 8, and 23 and 25 when she came home, so she started a program when she got out looking into the stages of grief and trauma that children go through when a parent goes to prison. I met her, we became friends, and then I was really interested in her life story and her program that’s implemented in the Rhode Island Department of Corrections now, so I was going to the visiting hours and meeting these kids. As I got to know them, the film really shifted to be from their perspective in looking at the effects of incarceration on children,” Tiller said.

“It’s a film about relationships, the importance of parenthood and that people can be excellent, amazing parents despite their incarceration or circumstances. We’re developing an extensive outreach and impact campaign with the film that has its own screening schedule with communities and institutions. As we’ve been traveling to film festivals, we try and connect with local community groups or prisons. When we were in San Francisco, we went to San Quentin Prison and showed the film there as well as the juvenile detention center and the public defenders office. San Quentin was amazing: they have a newspaper they publish out of the prison and they wrote an article about the film and the inmates’ response to it, which is also on our web site. Those are the communities and people we made the film for and are trying to connect with,” Tiller said.


She has been working on the film for four years, beginning in 2014 and completing it in January 2018. It premiered at the San Francisco International Film Festival in April and since has been screened a few times at festivals in Boston and elsewhere. It’s her first feature-length film, although it derived from a short film that she was able to use for fundraising and support. The reception has “been amazing, from a lot of different angles. We’ve had some fantastic reviews that are on our web site. People respond to it very powerfully because it’s not a ‘talking heads’ documentary and there’s not a specific call to action: you’re just led through these three boys’ lives as they’re growing up, so it’s an experiential, emotional film,” Tiller said.

“The main core team is three people: me, producer Rebecca Stern, and executive producer Andrew Freiband. But the list of support is long,” Tiller said. “The on-the-ground production crew was really small. It was usually just me and my cinematographer, Jon Gourlay.” The budget was a little less than a half-million dollars. “A significant part of the budget goes into the post-production and also includes some of our distribution and outreach funding as well.” Current distribution plans, she said, are exploring both traditional film channels and possible television. She hopes to use the film in support of social workers, educators, and others who serve the communities depicted, making it available in K-12 schools and colleges. “My biggest hope for the film is that it can build a larger conversation around the impact of incarceration on families and, specifically, children. The people left behind have a lot of stigma surrounding children who have parents in prison,” Tiller said.

She sees a nexus between the recently publicized separation of immigrant children. “It’s horrible what’s happening at the border, but what a lot of people don’t understand is that we’re separating children from their families every single day in this country, and that’s not just for violent offenders: that’s for people that can’t pay bail, people that were caught with a little marijuana. This has been happening in this country forever, but significantly over the past 30 or 40 years,” Tiller said. “When a parent goes to prison, a lot of times children are left in foster care, they’re left with grandparents, they’re put into the system themselves. It’s really no different in a lot of ways.”

Credit screen: "a film by" from Tre Maison Dasan
Credit screen: “a film by” from Tre Maison Dasan

Currently, “We’re all still very close. I’m in close contact with the boys,” Tiller said. “The film is actually titled at the beginning as ‘a film by’ Tre, Maison, Dasan, and me. It was important for me to have the film be a collaboration with them, so there’s music in the film that they created, particularly Tre so his music is throughout the film. My interactions with them, especially at the beginning, were, ‘You take the camera, you play with the equipment, film what you want me to see about your lives,’” Tiller said. “The boys also own 10% of the film… It was important that they maintain ownership over their own stories, over their own lives, and therefore over the film.”


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