Tre Maison Dasan and the Unexposed Consequences of Parental Incarceration
February 26th, 2019 by Keisha Bhamra.
Denali Tiller’s Tre Maison Dasan reimagines the archetypal documentary model, by relinquishing the power of direction to its subjects, 13 year old Tre, 11 year old Maison, and six year old Dasan. After all, these three young boys consistently prove that age is just a number, thus it would seem unjust to present it in any other way. The film exposes the crushing statistic that 1 in 14 children in the US have current or previous experience of a parent being incarcerated. Despite the shocking commonality of this narrative, the impact of parental incarceration goes mostly unvoiced in mainstream media outlets, and I found Tre Maison Dasan to be particularly powerful due to its thoughtful exposure of this.
Tre Maison Dasan underwent its international premiere at Raindance Festival in October 2018, where it received an award for Best Documentary Feature. In January 2019, Safe Ground presented a screening of the film at The Roundhouse in Camden to an audience, a number of whom had some kind of personal or professional experience within the criminal justice system. The fly-on-the-wall nature of the film meant that it offered no answers to the questions that naturally arise from it, and somewhat encouraged its audience to contemplate those possibilities themselves. After the screening, the audience were invited to partake in a fishbowl exercise whereby an inner and outer circle were formed. Facilitated by Safe Ground, the more intimate inner circle began with a 20 minute discussion of the question posed, ‘what was the film about?’ After this time, the outer circle considered these viewpoints and further developed the conversation.
The discussion seemed quickly to become rooted in the proposition that everyone embroiled in a crime and its ramifications becomes victimised in some way, be that the original victim, perpetrator, or those close to them. For example, we acknowledged that in addition to the immediate victims of the crime itself, the perpetrator and their family members become victims too and furthermore, we considered that as a direct result of familial breakdowns caused by parental incarceration, children with a family member in prison regularly became hidden victims. It felt bitterly ironic that in these instances, children can often become the key support for their parent inside, as could clearly be seen in the film, especially in Tre’s case, where we see him evolve from a vulnerable child in need of his father, to a somewhat hardened teenager, comforting his father towards the end of the film. Something we all noted, was the tenuous relationship between punishment and rehabilitation. We were aware that despite the punitive measures of prison and hope for rehabilitation for the parents, it was the children who had to deal with the repercussions of the crime on the outside, not the parent who was mandatorily removed from the environment. In which case, was the child being punished just as much as their parent, but for a crime they themselves had no part in?
Throughout the course of the film we see Tre in particular, develop from a child to an adult. The last visit the boys take to see their parents, shows a complete role reversal, with Tre measured and his father in tears at the thought of his child following the same trajectory. It was extremely hard to watch this, especially as we agreed that it seemed likely that this might well become a reality. With this we discussed how helpless the parent in prison must feel, unable to protect their child to the extent they would be capable of outside of prison. We agreed that the upmost importance was placed on the support network the boys had around them. Whilst Maison and Dasan had strong systems, Tre had insubstantial support, seeing as his mother was very much in need of support herself due to factors such as drug abuse. The relationship between Tre and his mother was clearly impacted by his father’s incarceration, and a scene in which they access a family support worker together highlighted the difficulty the pair had in expressing obvious love for one another.
In contrast, we noted that all the boys were far more emotionally honest and vulnerable during the visiting periods with their incarcerated parent than they seemed to be with their parent or guardian on the outside. We contemplated whether this might be because of the time pressure on the visits, and what impact this had on the boys’ interaction with the other family members attempting to support them daily. It was often the case that the anger felt towards the incarcerated parent became misdirected towards the boys’ main sources of support. I wondered if the pressure of the environment however, did encourage the children to have healthy honest conversations with their parent that they might not otherwise have had. Towards the end of the film, we see Maison interview his father on a visit, with earnest questioning very much predating his 11 years. In turn, his father deals with his crime nobly, taking full responsibility for his actions and actively encouraging Maison to understand and accept it.
When the discussion broadened, we considered these instances on a macro-scale, drawing evidence from both the American and European prison systems. In America, where the documentary is set, currently 2.7 million (1 in 28) children have a parent in prison. We discussed the impact trauma has on an ability to engage with one another and the devastating consequences this had held for Tre’s family. We also looked more immediately at the state of our education system, and how the high rates of exclusion in UK secondary schools might be affecting the crime rates amongst our young people. There was a palpable despondency in the room when we began to examine the fundamental flaws in our educational, health and justice systems that were desisting the possibilities for positive development. It was a frustrating conversation, because despite differences in approach, there was clearly a collective movement amongst the group for a complete paradigm shift in the way we think about crime and justice both locally and internationally.
Over the course of the film I began to see the visiting room they presented, as a surreal and somewhat clinical middle-ground between life in the prison and life on the outside, a shared space in which, despite opposing circumstances, parent and child were both equally as free and imprisoned as one another. It was a space in which parental and filial tropes were irrelevant, and the balance could go either way as to who was vulnerable and who was providing support. There seemed to be an uneasy juxtaposition between the comfort that the room came to epitomise, and simultaneously an aversion to all it represented. I thought that Maison’s appeal to his father to never wear a khaki shirt again once he’s released, encapsulated these conflicting emotions perfectly. The film questioned the parameters of love, responsibility and eventually success, when it closes with Maison’s acceptance into a new school, Dasan joining a boy–scouts trip, and Tre walking out of shot with a group of friends, to the soundtrack of his music; angrier and more sincere than his earlier work, but undoubtedly technically stronger. These accomplishments, consistent with many 11 to 18 year old boys, was a moving end to the documentary. After 94 minutes of raw and uncensored insight into the lives of Tre, Maison and Dasan, we’re left with the reminder that ultimately, Tre, Maison and Dasan are just children, something that becomes all too easy to lose sight of.
Written by Callie Davidson