denali sm cr
I have found my purpose as a filmmaker and as a person.

When Denali Schmidt ’11 decided to attend the Rhode Island School of Design, it wasn’t a big surprise. She was very involved in visual arts at Albuquerque Academy – and her grandfather had attended RISD (Class of 1949) – so the college seemed like a good fit.

After spending her freshman year taking classes in everything from drawing and design to spatial dynamics, Denali declared a major in textiles. But, she says, there was another art form that kept pulling at her.

“I am not sure what part of filmmaking interested me most,” says Denali. But, she listened to that inner voice, changing her focus to filmmaking, and began working on stop-motion animation.

Denali says her first experiences in filmmaking and animation happened at the Academy. “My 6th grade history project was probably my first exposure to video-making,” she says, referring to an animated Powerpoint presentation she made in Mr. Baklini’s class.

She continued to dabble in similar projects throughout her time at the Academy – making videos in Spanish and science and creating the video for the homecoming dance in her senior year. “I had iMovie on my laptop and I just learned how to edit and add music on my own. I really liked it!”

Denali says that when she reflects on these experiences, she realizes each of these projects were, in fact, little documentaries – they were all different approaches to telling a story. And, she says, it is that storytelling aspect of filmmaking that she finds so appealing.

So, when Denali started seriously thinking about her final project – at RISD the senior year is dedicated to one single project – she began considering the possibility of making a documentary, rather than an animated film.

Then, when a friend from school who was working with the Department of Corrections in Rhode Island told Denali about a woman named Joyce Haskett – a woman convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison who had devoted her life to helping the children of incarcerated parents – Denali knew she had found a story to tell.

Now midway through her senior year, Denali has spent the past five months developing the concept for her film. Sons and Daughters of the Incarcerated is a short film about Joyce’s work, taking a close look at what happens to children – from an emotional perspective – when their mothers or fathers are incarcerated. The film focuses on three children whose fathers are in prison in Rhode Island. (Click here to watch the trailer.)

Denali, who now uses her mom’s last name of Tiller as a professional name, has spent several months developing the story, building relationships with the children and their families, and figuring out logistics. Now, she’s busy filming, but she needs some help. In order to finish the film, and in hopes of using the short film as launching point for a full-length documentary, Denali has started a Kickstarter campaign, hoping the crowdsourcing website can help her raise awareness and the funds she needs to produce the film.

As her final project at RISD, the film will debut at the RISD Senior Show on May 9. Denali says students are also encouraged to show their work beyond this venue, so she is considering entering some film festivals.

Once this project is complete, Denali is hoping to be in a position to take this project to the next level. With the success of this short film, she hopes to be able to spend more time with the children and their families featured in the film, and the program itself, in order to make a feature film surrounding these issues.

As Denali continues down her chosen career path, one thing is clear: She was wise to listen to that little voice that led her to a life of documentary filmmaking. “I have found my purpose as a filmmaker and as a person,” she says. “This is very exciting work.”

If you are interested in this project or Denali’s work as a filmmaker, you can show your support by donating to her Kickstarter campaign.