The 32-minute Oscar-nominated short film Last Day of Freedom opens with a sketch animation of young boys playing. They’re laughing and carefree, one does a cartwheel when Bill Babbitt’s voice comes in: “The death penalty was fine with me as long as it was your brother, your son or your daughter.”
Babbitt’s brother, Manny, was joyful as a boy—they used to enjoy hunting for clams together in Bodega Bay as kids. But then Manny was in a car accident, hit his head, graduated school without basic reading skills and joined the Marines. He ended up in Khe Sanh, Vietnam and returned home physically, but not mentally. In 1999, Manny was executed for murdering a 78-year-old woman in Sacramento.
Directed by UCSC associate professor and co-founder of the Social Practice Research Center Dee Hibbert-Jones, Last Day of Freedom is an illustrated animation documentary short on Babbitt’s story—how he grappled with the decision to turn his brother in, hoping that a Purple Heart Vietnam veteran who clearly suffered with PTSD would be given medical help rather than the death penalty.
“We’re at a crisis in our criminal justice system: since 1982 at least one black man has been executed on death row every single year,” says Hibbert-Jones. “In California the death penalty will again be on the ballot, so we’re hoping that some of the attention coming to us will come to the film, and people who maybe aren’t sure what their positions are will maybe have their perspectives shifted through this story.”
Hibbert-Jones started the project six years ago with her co-producer and co-director Nomi Talisman. They first heard Babbitt’s story when Talisman was working for a nonprofit community resource initiative interviewing families for testimony against the death penalty.
“We started thinking about animation because we started interviewing a family that needed anonymity,” says Hibbert-Jones. “From there we realized the power of animation in ways that can access the audiences—younger audiences. We really liked the idea of working metaphorically across stories.”
Babbitt’s narrative encompasses so many of the other experiences that Hibbert-Jones and Talisman encountered in their work, like the absolute shock at the failings of the justice system and the heartbreak of watching a family member be executed by the state.
“We realized their stories needed telling and we needed to foreground that as the center of this piece,” Babbitt says. “Then we started thinking about how one could communicate some of these ideas, beyond just the telling of the stories and imagining ourselves in an emotional state—for Bill and also for Manny.”
That’s how watching the movie feels: as if it comes from inside the chaos of a mind that has slipped from reality and remains caged in a Vietnam battlefield.
It took 32,000 drawings to make the moody clash of sometimes choppy, sometimes smooth animated sketches a reality. With some animation help, Hibbert-Jones and Talisman did the work from their San Francisco rental.
“We work out of our front room, so it’s very much a homegrown organization,” says Hibbert-Jones, laughing. “It’s just the two of us working and trying to dedicate everything to this while still having enough money to raise our family. We have a young son, and it’s crazy to work with anyone else—collaboration is very complex, but really beneficial.”
The hardest part? Finding the time and the money, she says.
“The death penalty is not a subject that is easy to get funding for, so that became an extra challenge for us and there were times when we felt we should probably not do it, it’s too hard,” says Hibbert-Jones. “We forged on and here we are. That’s a good example of like, ‘hey, just keep going after what you believe in.’”
It paid off, with their very first film project nominated for an Oscar in the upcoming 88th Academy Awards, airing Feb. 28.
In-between luncheons, interviews and meetings (“As I’m talking to you I’m folding the laundry, it’s a three-ring circus over here”), Hibbert-Jones says that it’s an honor, albeit overwhelming.
“To meet the other filmmakers is just incredibly exciting and so exhausting, I can’t even tell you. It doesn’t feel real, to be honest,” says Hibbert-Jones, in rapid-fire bursts. “Somebody was saying ‘Well when your limo drives up …’ We’re like ‘What limo? Do we need a limo?’”
On top of navigating the new-found hectic schedule of an Oscar nominee, Hibbert-Jones is still teaching classes in public art, sculpture, and digital art new media.
“I missed Monday’s class but they went to do the artists-in-residency ecology program at the landfill,” says Hibbert-Jones. “[They were] thinking about value and waste of commodities at the same time that I was at the Oscars thinking about value and waste of human lives and also evaluation of who gets to be successful, so it’s kind of an interesting study in contrast.”