“It’s a story so outrageous on one hand, so heartbreaking on the other; we don’t want to make it easier for the viewer, we want them to stay connected emotionally, as long as possible,” says Nomi Talisman, one of the two filmmakers behind the film “Last Day of Freedom,” a documentary on the execution of Manny Babbitt, narrated by his brother, Bill, that was nominated for an Academy Award last month for Best Documentary Short Subject.
Talisman and her partner, Dee Hibbert-Jones, tell this complicated, tragic story using thousands of hand-drawn animations from actual interviews and archival material. They capture the anguish of Bill Babbitt, who thought by turning his brother in to the police he would finally get him the help he needed, and the tragedy of Manny, a man who served his country, returned home broken and mentally ill, and was executed for causing the death of a woman in an encounter during a panic attack he couldn’t remember.
It’s a film the New York Times said “will break your heart.”
“Last Day of Freedom” came about when Talisman, who works as an investigator for the San Francisco-based Community Resource Initiative, which provides direct legal services to people facing the death penalty in the U.S., heard the story of Manny and Bill Babbitt.
“We chose Bill’s story because we wanted to crack open the failures of the criminal justice system, systemically,” Talisman explains, “The racism, the lack of care for veterans and the mentally ill . . . . The only time the government takes control is in punishment.”
Hibbert-Jones and Talisman spent four-and-a-half years on the 32-minute film, half of which was spent drawing 32 thousand illustrations, interviewing Bill on camera, and editing. There were times during those years the two became discouraged, but they believed it was a story that needed to be told, and that no one could tell it better than Bill.
“All Bill tried to do was the right thing — protect his brother, protect his family. There were times when we were first editing that we had to fast forward [through the footage] because it was so emotional. [The day Manny was arrested] was Bill’s last day of freedom too. He will never be the same,” says Hibbert-Jones.
Both women have been lifelong opponents of the death penalty. Hibbert-Jones was born and raised in England, where the death penalty was abolished before she was born. Talisman is from Israel, which has a death penalty on the books, but hasn’t executed anyone since 1962, and hasn’t sought a death sentence since the 1990s.
Hibbert-Jones, an associate professor of art at U.C. Santa Cruz, and Talisman, a freelance editor, videographer, and motion graphics designer, were anxious to collaborate on a project that would highlight the broken system that is the death penalty in the United States.
“I can’t understand why anyone would think the death penalty is a reasonable form of punishment,” says Hibbert-Jones. “Living in a state and country that has the death penalty feels wrong. It’s horrific, and completely against my values.”
This was Hibbert-Jones’s and Talisman’s first film, which made the Academy Award nomination all the more surprising. While making the film, the two were also scrambling for funding, an effort made even more difficult because of the subject matter. “Many foundations will not fund projects related to the death penalty” explains Hibbert-Jones.
But thanks to the Oscar nomination, and the wide release of the film across the United States, the two are optimistic that getting financing for the next film will be easier.
They’ve already begun preliminary work on the story of Troy Davis, who was convicted of shooting police officer Mark MacPhail in Savannah, Georgia in 1989. Despite the facts that no forensic evidence, including DNA, was ever gathered linking Davis to the killing; that seven of nine witnesses recanted their testimony implicating Davis; that more than 600 thousand petitions were delivered to the Georgia Board of Pardons and Parole; and that political and religious leaders including former President Jimmy Carter, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and 51 members of Congress asked for clemency, Davis was executed on September 21, 2011.
“‘Last Day of Freedom’ was the first in a series, and while we want to make sure that the next pieces don’t replicate it, we will continue to focus on the whole criminal justice system” in the United States, Hibbert-Jones says.
“The fact we got so far on such a mainstream track, that [“Last Day of Freedom”] got such a major platform, we believe there’s a place to really open this conversation,” Talisman agrees.
“Last Day of Freedom” is available on Netflix. Visit the film’s site for information about upcoming screenings.