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  • Writer's pictureAva Martoma

Denali Tiller x KidsMates

By Ava Martoma, Age 15

Denali Tiller "Denali Tiller" "Tre Mason Dason" "Martoma" KidsMates "Ava Martoma"
"Sometimes what we can do may feel small in comparison to the size of the problem. But we must do what we can." -- filmmaker Denali Tiller

America celebrated its 246th year of independence this month, so KidsMates wants to explore the power of storytelling and personal narrative for creating freedom in the lives of children with incarcerated parents. Our guest is Ms. Denali Tiller, an award-winning artist and filmmaker for non-fiction forms. Denali was named as one of 110 "filmmakers to watch" by Variety and is currently best known for her film documentary Tre Maison Dasan, a soul-searching story about three boys who navigate life with an incarcerated parent. The film is told from the boy's perspective, and the children had a creative role in the filmmaking.

Anyone who has felt the prison system directly or indirectly as a child or family member knows that the experience is deeply personal and subjective. Denali set out to tell a story not just about parental incarceration, in which 1 of 14 children will have an incarcerated parent over their childhood, but also a story about children growing up in a modern age without supportive caregivers to guide them. The film is not so much a call to action as it is a chance to learn about the lives of others with different lived experiences.

I have watched Tre Mason Dasan a dozen times. As a child who suffered parental incarceration, I found similarities and differences in my experiences versus the three boys in the film. I also believe the film warns us about what our society will look like if we fail to address the peripheral challenges to mass incarceration. I'm so thankful to Denali for making this film, and I hope everyone has a chance to watch it.

Without further ado, please welcome my guest today, Ms. Denali Tiller!

Ava: Good afternoon, Denali. How are you? Thank you for being my guest today. I'm wondering if we can jump into it by having you tell us your personal story as it relates to the criminal justice system and your work with children of incarcerated parents?

Denali: In 2014, I met Joyce Dixson-Haskett, a mother who spent 17 years in a Michigan prison. Her sons were 6 and 8 years old when she was incarcerated, and 23 and 25 when she came home. She missed their entire childhoods - and they missed her. In conversations around criminal justice and prison reform, the perspective is most often about those who are or have been incarcerated. But, of the millions of people who have experienced incarceration, there are millions more who have borne the collateral trauma of that absence and the stigma that surrounds it. I wanted to hear from these families, and particularly children like Joyce's, so I started going to visiting hours at John J. Moran Medium Security Prison, which is where I first met Tre and Maison (and later, Dasan). Their stories evolved from there, and together we grew a film - Tre Maison Dasan.

I knew that any story about children experiencing parental incarceration should come from those who have lived the experience - from the kids directly. We often tell stories about children through a top-down perspective, informed by what we (adults) "know" about their psychology and how their lives will unfold. I wanted a film that allowed the children to speak for themselves and fully represented their experiences and the rippling effects of our vast incarceration system. Before meeting Joyce, and (before meeting) Tre, Maison, and Dasan, I had never known anyone who had been in prison, so this was also a new experience for me too.

Ava: You're right about that. Every story is deeply personal, and we often think we know what's best for others without considering their unique lived perspectives. My siblings and I are children who faced parental incarceration, but our perspectives are different, even though we related to each other. Your film is compelling, and I'm thankful that Tre, Maison, and Dason were so involved in shaping it. Can I ask what you are up to now and whether you, Tre, Maison, and Dason continue to stay in touch?

Denali: Honestly, in the past year and since the film's release, I think the most important work I have done to help children and families facing parental incarceration is to continue to be in touch with Tre, Maison and Dasan. Particularly Tre, who is now 20 years old, and preparing to be a father. He is no longer on speaking terms with his father, who is still in prison, and his mom passed away in 2016. Being a support for him throughout his life and into his future sometimes feels like the biggest thing I can do.

Ava: Wow. At KidsMates, we believe that having a supportive adult is critical to developing resilience in the face of parental incarceration. It sounds like you are a big part of Tre's life, which is a real blessing for you both. This moment may be an excellent time to ask what people don't understand about your work or filmmaking perspective that you would like them to know?

Denali: Documentary filmmaking is about relationships - and should be a collaborative process. Making Tre Maison Dasan was not a process of popping in and out of these kids' lives to tell a story about how their parents' incarceration is affecting them. I was there almost every week for three years, most of the time with a camera, but not always. I never pressured intimate moments or scenarios based on the story I thought we were telling. I just spent time with them, listening and playing and documenting and collecting the stories from their lives as they were in front of us. Probably 80% of the footage we came away with is us just hanging out — playing with Legos, eating McDonald's, going to the beach, birthday parties, Thanksgivings, Christmases, and school days. The intimate scenes you see in the film are just blips in the time we spent with Tre, Maison, and Dasan, documenting their lives so when they would happen we were already there and already filming, and the kids trusted us with these moments enough to capture them as they unfolded.

Ava: It takes a lot of patience and dedication to be a filmmaker. I'm guessing you learn more by listening than talking. But now let's turn the camera on you! What can you share with others about children or families dealing with incarceration?

Denali: What's missing in a lot of peoples' understanding about incarceration is the collateral damage on families and communities. When someone is incarcerated, it's easy to just see that one individual. But most of the burden actually falls back on that person's family. Children whose parents are in prison need and deserve an incredible amount of support.

Ava: Are there any tips you would give children coping with having a parent in prison?

Denali: I heard an interview with a woman the other day, and she talked about a magic question - "What would it take…". I think this is a great way to ask for things, from others and of yourself.

For example, to a parent or loved one, you might ask - "What would it take for you to call me more often? ""What would it take for you to see me and accept me for who I am?" "What would it take for you to be honest with me?"

To yourself, you might say - "What would it take for me to be happy?" "What would it take for me to do well in school?", "What would it take for me to make myself proud?".

I really love this way of asking a question because it prompts answers that are productive and positive, and forces both the question asker and the question receiver to acknowledge the other's needs. Maybe the answer is simple i.e., "For me to call more often, it would take a reminder every day - maybe an alarm on my watch would help," and maybe the answer is harder "For me to be happy, it would mean having my dad home with me." But these answers both prompt a game plan and action. They prompt a conversation and a set of goals.

Lean on your community. Lean on yourself. And don't accept "nothing" as an answer.

Ava: "What would it take?" I like that a lot. What would it take for observers to appreciate the challenges of parental incarceration and find ways to help? Maybe I should ask you since you also never knew anyone in the incarceration system before meeting Joyce and making your file. So who influenced you the most to take action?

Denali: I'm not sure I could name just one person. My work in the community - with families, with children, with social workers, with incarcerated parents and folks that are coming home, with people who keep going back, with people who will never go back, with new parents and old parents, with historians, with books, with audiences, and around the world.

Two books and one essay influenced my understanding perhaps more dramatically than anything: Michelle Alexander's The New Jim Crow, Brian Stevenson's Just Mercy, and Ta-Nehisi Coates' A Case for Reparations.

Ava: Great point. Great books! I love them all. As we wrap up, I'd like to ask if you were giving one last piece of advice about how to make a difference, what would you say?

Denali: I would point them to the Quechan parable of the hummingbird:

Once there was a huge fire in the forest. All the animals watched as the flames engulfed the trees around them, frozen with fear and helplessness. All the animals, except the little hummingbird. Without hesitating, she flew to the lake and sucked up a drop of water. She flew back and forth from the lake to the fire with drops of water as the other animals watched the fire burn their homes - including much larger animals like the Elephant, who could bring much more water with his trunk. The animals called the hummingbird saying, "What do you think you can do? You are so small, and this fire is too big!" The hummingbird did not stop as she replied, "I am doing what I can."

Sometimes what we can do may feel small in comparison to the size of the problem. But we must do what we can.

Ava: That's a beautiful place to end. Denali, you've left us all humming with good advice. I hope our followers ask themselves, "what would it take" and remember to "do what you can." Never be afraid to listen to someone else's perspective with patience and care. You might learn something new. Thank you so much for sharing. We can't wait to see your next project. To learn more about Denali Tiller or Tre Maison Dason, check out ​​ and


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