“Last Day of Freedom”: Two brothers, one a murderer
Twenty-nine minutes past midnight on May 4, 1999, Manny Babbitt’s execution by lethal injection began in San Quentin, Calif. By 12:37 a.m., he was officially pronounced dead.
This isn’t the beginning of the story, nor is it the end. But when filmmakers Nomi Talisman and Dee Hibbert-Jones were confronted by this scene in their animated “Last Day of Freedom,” which is nominated for an Oscar in the documentary (short-subject) category, they were perplexed as to how to interpret it through drawings.
“We struggled with that scene until we finally decided to leave the screen blank,” Talisman said in an Israeli accent. “And then we said, ‘OK, that was a no-brainer.’ ”
“Last Day of Freedom” is built entirely around the narrative of Bill Babbitt, Manny’s brother, who relives the events that led up to the execution. Bill’s storytelling is painstaking, telling of trying to cope with the loss of his younger brother and the role he had played in Manny reaching that point.
During the execution scene, only Bill’s voice is heard as a blank screen looms. His words are loaded: “The only noises you could hear then were the pipes. Water, air going through the pipes, and steam. You could hear pipes clanging, like, you know, things unsettling you.”
Two and a half years in the making, the 27-minute documentary is composed of more than 32,000 hand-drawn cells. Hibbert-Jones and Talisman, life partners and artists, have collaborated since 2004 on projects that revolve around themes of criminal justice and civic responsibility, but this is their first film and first Oscar nomination.
Talisman, 49, was born in Nof Yam, a city outside Tel Aviv. For her university studies, when choosing between art or film school, she said, “At that time, there was only one TV channel in Israel and very few productions, so it seemed art might be a more viable option than film.” Talisman eventually moved to San Francisco for an MFA program at Mills College, a decision that ultimately afforded her a chance meeting with her future collaborator, Hibbert-Jones, a recent graduate of the college and a Manchester, England, native. Today, they live in San Francisco’s Mission District with their son.
“Last Day of Freedom” filmmakers Dee Hibbert-Jones (left) and Nomi Talisman (right) take a selfie at their San Francisco studio. Photo by Nomi Talisman and Dee Hibbert-Jones
“Because it’s all drawn, you can put as much or as little as you want on the screen,” Talisman said of their decision to animate Babbitt’s interview. Talisman was working as a media specialist for a nonprofit doing mitigation work on capital cases — attempting to prevent executions — when she came across recordings of Bill and Manny Babbitt’s story, which immediately struck a chord. “The audio was so clear and so crisp; it was so clear what the story should be, and we thought how can we put an image with it that’s not going to compete,” she said.
In the opening scene, Bill says of Manny, “They say he was a monster. I don’t see that. I see a little brother.” Bill recalls growing up in Massachusetts, clam-digging with his brother, Manny’s failing out of middle school and eventually enlisting in the Army during the Vietnam War. Manny came back from Vietnam broken, with a crippling case of post-traumatic stress disorder. One evening in 1980, while walking down a dark street in Sacramento in a drug-fueled haze, he was mentally transported back to the blood-soaked Vietnam battlefield of Khe Sanh, and the headlights of oncoming cars morphed in his mind into exploding mortars and enemy aircraft.
That’s when Manny broke into a house owned by 78-year-old Leah Schendel, an act that would lead to her death. It was Bill who turned in his brother, suspecting he was responsible for Schendel’s death but believing the authorities would get Manny the psychological help he needed. Manny was eventually convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to death.
“Bill calls it the Babbitt story,” Talisman said. “He cannot separate the two things. It’s about Manny, his younger brother, but he took responsibility for him when he did this thing that he thought would help his brother, which eventually killed him. Their lives are forever connected.”
There were missteps in the handling of Manny’s case, which the film tackles. Schendel, although beaten by Manny, died of heart failure. The defense lawyer, reportedly drunk during much of the trial, later admitted he “failed completely in the death penalty phase,” never once calling as witnesses people who had served with Manny in Vietnam, never once considering Manny’s fractured mental state.
For Talisman, the film should speak to the people who stood by and did nothing. “The message should be to a social-service person who should have stepped in early on, or the message is to somebody in school who should have noticed that he’s that old and hasn’t finished seventh grade. The message is to the people who drafted him … after he came out, he didn’t get any help,” she said.
In the film, Bill recounts watching his brother’s death in the San Quentin execution chamber, standing alongside the Schendel family. “Yes, they were victims,” he said of the Schendels. “They had a terrible loss, but we’re all partners in this experiment.” The artist’s rendering of his face stares directly into the camera.
“We’ve all got blood on our hands now,” he said, lifting up his hands like he’s in surrender.
“Last Day of Freedom” is available on Netflix.