The IDA Award-winning film by artists Dee Hibbert-Jones and Nomi Talisman explores PTSD, the death penalty and other moral conundrums
Animation is used to wondrous effect in several of the most acclaimed documentaries of the year.
Meet the Patels is interwoven with animated sequences -- line drawings that cover audio of a conversation between sister-brother filmmakers Geeta and Ravi Patel.
Laurie Anderson created the art for animated portions of her dream-like Heart of a Dog, which recently made the Oscar shortlist for Best Documentary.
Another Oscar contender is fully animated -- the 32-minute long Last Day of Freedom from directors Dee Hibbert-Jones and Nomi Talisman. It made the Oscar shortlist in the doc short category and last weekend won the IDA Award for Best Documentary Short.
Animation has this way of allowing you to see and understand stories in a totally different way.
Last Day of Freedom is the first film for Hibbert-Jones and Talisman, but they are seasoned artists.
"We come from art backgrounds so we knew how to make drawings better than we knew how to make a film, in some ways," Talisman told Nonfictionfilm.com. "So it's kind of like, 'We have an interview. It's really great. We know how to work a camera, etc., but it's just not our background. So, [we decided] we can just make it with drawings.' It's what we did."
The interview in question is with Bill Babbitt, an African-American man who back in the 1980s took in his younger brother Manny, a Vietnam War veteran who suffered PTSD and was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia.
Babbitt recounts in the film how one day he discovered a piece of evidence in his home that tied Manny to an unsolved murder.
"Last Day of Freedom, basically it's the story of a man who realizes his brother has committed a crime and his quandary of whether he should call the police," Hibbert-Jones told NFF. "And when he finally did call the police his brother was accused of a capital crime."
Babbitt's brother spent almost 20 years on death row at California's San Quentin Prison.
"He was executed on his 50th birthday," Hibbert-Jones said, with Bill as one of the witnesses. "[The film] is Bill's story and it's animated frame by frame. It's 32,000 drawings."
Drawings from "Last Day of Freedom" by directors Dee Hibbert-Jones and Nomi Talisman. Courtesy Living Condition LLC
At the IDA Awards in Hollywood, NFF spoke with the directors about the advantage to using line drawings as the visual element.
"Animation has this way of allowing you to see and understand stories in a totally different way. And so you have this [different] access to stories," Hibbert-Jones said.
Talisman added, "We wanted to really focus more on the psychological states of both the storyteller and his brother who was a Vietnam vet, had PTSD, had a lot of mental health issues. We really wanted to kind of open up another option to show that visually and really to be able to start filming basically a full blank page for every scene."
Last Day of Freedom can be read as a critique of the death penalty. The film's website includes a bio of Hibbert-Jones and Talisman, which describes their mission as filmmakers: "[They] tell stories that bring to life larger issues of criminal justice and civic responsibility. Their work investigates the ways individuals manage power systems from the mundane to the extreme. They blend animation and documentary forms to challenge entrenched attitudes and move beyond dehumanizing statistics, engendering empathy and critical reflection."
Last Day of Freedom has earned numerous honors in addition to the IDA Award, including the jury prize for documentary short at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival earlier this year.
Voting on the Oscar nominations begins Dec. 30 and closes January 8. Nominations will be revealed the morning of Thursday, January 14.
For Hibbert-Jones, who hails from Britain, and Talisman, who is Israeli, awards season has become an unexpected journey.
"We're incredibly honored. It's so exciting, really. We can't quite believe it," Hibbert-Jones said. "We feel like we’ve been incredibly lucky with the way the film has been recognized and it’s an incredible honor and it’s so exciting for us. It’s kind of a shock too. Sort of stunning. How did we get here? But we’re really thrilled that we are."
Matthew Carey is a documentary filmmaker and journalist. His work has appeared on Deadline.com, CNN, CNN.com, TheWrap.com, NBCNews.com and in Documentary magazine.