“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. 

Seth Rogen’s ‘Bigfoot’ pilot ordered by FX


That elusive Sasquatch has been found, and he’s on FX! Or at least he will be soon.

The cable network has just ordered up the pilot of Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg’s new animated series, “Bigfoot,” according to The Hollywood Reporter.

The show will center on the bipedal hominid’s adventures as “a modern-day everyman who struggles with life’s philosophical quandaries as well as his own animalistic tendencies.”

If you think it sounds awesome, you’re not alone. “This will be the greatest show about an animated Bigfoot ever made,” Rogen said.

Related: Evan Goldberg and Seth Rogen: Friends for the end of the world

SLIDESHOW: Shimon Peres meets Hollywood


Israeli President Shimon Peres visits DreamWorks Animation on March 9.

Click “i” to view photo captions

Israeli film ‘Waltz With Bashir’ has an anti-war beat


“Waltz With Bashir” is a startling hybrid of a movie vehicle which came from behind to become Israel’s entry for Oscar honors, announced last month, and may well pull another surprise when the Academy Award for best foreign-language film is announced.

The oddly titled film combines state-of-the-art animation, an anti-war documentary theme and a psychoanalytic approach to recover the memory of a traumatized Israeli soldier.

The mixture may sound odd, but it comes together as an integrated and haunting autobiographical movie, which will be screened for the first time locally on Nov. 1 at the American Film Institute Fest 2008.

Ari Folman, the film’s writer, director and producer, is also its central character as a 20-year-old infantryman, whose unit spearheaded the Israeli advance into Lebanon in June 1982 with the announced goal of stopping incursions and rocket attacks on northern Galilee towns by the Palestine Liberation Organization.

Going beyond the original Israeli plan to establish a 25-mile buffer zone in southern Lebanon, Folman’s Golani Brigade is ordered to the outskirts of Beirut, awaiting orders to take the city.

In confusing night actions and bitter street fighting, the young soldiers encounter fear and death. Their sometime allies are the Christian Phalangist militia, led by the young, charismatic Bashir Gemayel. (The film takes its title from a scene in which an Israeli soldier, dodging bullets while crossing a Beirut street, goes through strange, waltz-like motions, while huge posters of Gemayel look down.)

When Gemayel is killed in an explosion, the revered leader’s militia takes over the Sabra and Shatila Palestinian refugee camps on the outskirts of Beirut, while Israeli soldiers, including Folman, are positioned around the camps’ perimeters.


The trailer

After three nights of killings, shell-shocked civilians stumble out of the camps, leaving behind murdered corpses, whose estimated numbers range from 700 to 3,000.

The years pass, and one day Folman meets a former army buddy who talks about a strange, recurring dream, rooted in his battlefield experiences, and Folman realizes that he remembers nothing of his own actions in the war.

He decides to seek out six veterans from his old unit, a TV journalist who covered the war, and an expert on post-traumatic stress disorder, to help him restore old memories.

To create his script, Folman said in an interview that he recorded the witnesses’ stories on video and cut the recollections down to 90 minutes. Next, his team created a storyboard and 2,300 illustrations, which were turned into animation through a combination of Flash, classical animation and 3D.

Speaking by phone from his Haifa home, Folman said that his production costs were $2 million, mostly underwritten by Israeli, French and German film funds. When he exhausted the grants, he mortgaged his home and took out a large loan.

During the four years that went into the making of “Waltz,” the psychological and financial strains were unrelenting, Folman recalled, not made easier by the birth of his three children during that period.

Folman said that there was never any question in his mind that the film would be animated, noting, “If you look at all the elements, the dreams, the hallucinations, the surrealism of war itself, that’s the only way I could make it work.”

Only in the last 50 seconds of the 87-minute film does Folman switch to newsreel footage to show the bloody toll of the Phalangists’ massacre.

“I didn’t want the people in the audience to come out feeling that they had seen a film with some really cool animation and great music,” Folman explained.

The film is infused with Folman’s conviction that war is senseless and his visceral dislike of Israel’s leadership during the Lebanon War, particularly of Ariel Sharon, then minister of defense.

So intense is Folman’s feeling that he sees his film as a kind of legacy for his young sons, so when the time comes, “They will make the right decision, meaning not to take part in any war, whatsoever.”

On questioning, he qualified the statement by saying that it referred to Israel’s two Lebanon wars and America’s invasion of Iraq, but not to such “defensive” battles as the Six-Day and Yom Kippur wars.

“Waltz With Bashir” won high praise at the Cannes, Toronto and New York film festivals, and, perhaps more surprisingly, in its home country.

The Israeli government’s film fund subsidized the movie, there was no criticism from the political right, and only some on the left objected that the film’s anti-war message wasn’t strong enough.

“Israelis are very tolerant toward their artists,” Folman said.

AFI will screen “Waltz With Bashir” on Nov. 1 at 3:45 p.m. and again Nov. 7 at 7 p.m., both at the Arclight Theatre in Hollywood. The film will be released in general theaters on Dec. 25.

Other titles at the AFI Fest (Oct. 30 – Nov. 9) on Jewish themes or by Jewish filmmakers include “Acne,” “Adam Resurrected,” “Defiance” and “Of All the Things.”

For ticket and other information, visit http://www.afi.com/afifest or phone (886) AFI-FEST.


Producer Josephson’s vision for a new fairy-tale princess stars in Disney’s ‘Enchanted’


One of Barry Josephson’s first forays into the world of fairy tales was in an elementary school production of “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.” Although the “Men in Black” producer doesn’t remember which dwarf he played, that glimmer of the land between “once upon a time” and “happily ever after,” started him on the path to creating Disney’s latest film, “Enchanted,” opening in theaters Nov. 21.

In the grand tradition of classic Disney fairy tales, this part-animated and part-live-action musical begins in the fictional land of Andalasia, where a young maiden named Giselle (“Junebug’s” Amy Adams), sings to her woodland friends, meets a prince (“Hairspray’s” James Marsden), encounters an evil queen (Academy Award-winner Susan Sarandon) and gets pushed into a well that transports her to modern-day Times Square, where she runs into a nearly engaged/cynical divorce lawyer/single father (“Grey’s Anatomy’s” Patrick Dempsey). Well, maybe that last part is new to the genre.

“Enchanted,” asks the question ‘what if,’ which is so intriguing,” Josephson said of the script that first came to his attention in the late 1990s.

But bringing a new fairy tale to life turned out to be about as daunting as slaying a dragon. There hasn’t been a new Disney princess since Jasmine in 1992’s “Aladdin.” Josephson said he read the Grimm brothers’ stories and Disney classics in order to give a backstory to Giselle, who believes that your soul mate is the person who can finish the line in your duet.

“What was thin in the original script was: What is Giselle’s story?” he said. “She thinks she understands the world, so [director] Kevin [Lima] wanted to start her dilemma in the animated world. Then she comes to our world, where there is even more put upon her.”

“Our world” was Josephson’s dream come true.

“This movie was a fantasy come true,” said the New Yorker. “I grew up on 90th [street, between] Park and Lexington. It was the greatest thrill on the planet to film there — I really wanted to see the city sparkle.”

And sparkle it does, thanks to composers and lyricists Alan Menken (“Little Mermaid,” “Beauty and the Beast”) and Stephen Schwartz (“Pocahontas,” “Wicked”), who third collaboration created a half-dozen new songs for the film: from the sweet opening, “True Love’s Kiss” to the Central Park grand production number, “That’s How You’ll Know” to the incredibly romantic ballad, “So Close” and the new Carrie Underwood song, “Ever, Ever After,” which is already being played on Radio Disney.

However, Josephson said his favorite tune is a nod back to his “dwarf” days.

“I really love ‘The Happy Working Song,'” he said of a number that takes place in live-action as Giselle tries to clean up Dempsey’s dirty apartment (think Snow White). We won’t spoil the surprise by mentioning which creatures show up to help.

And even though Josephson said he doesn’t plan to break into song while getting ready for Chanukah, he isn’t opposed to infusing his life with a little fairy dust: “If you make a movie like this, it makes you sort of joyous,” he said.

Scary ‘Monster House’ comes direct from the basement


When Gil Kenan received a call from Robert Zemeckis in 2002, “I freaked out. I kind of flailed my arms and legs,” he said.

This Sunday, Feb. 25, Kenan’s feature directorial debut, “Monster House,” a Zemeckis/Steven Spielberg production, will vie for Best Animated Feature Film at the Academy Awards ceremony.

But back in 2002, the Israeli American Kenan was 26 and a graduate of UCLA’s film school with just one student short to his name. He had made his 10-minute short — about a house that comes alive — in the kitchen of his Pico-Robertson apartment, as eviction notices came and went on his front door.

Although the film had won the prestigious UCLA Spotlight Award, Kenan was understandably “shocked” when Zemeckis called with an offer to direct a movie — this one about a more monstrous anthropomorphic dwelling.

After Kenan had finished freaking out, he says his “Israeli chutzpah” kicked in and he arrived at his first “House” meeting with sketches he had drawn of the titular mansion, including cockeyed window eyes and a sagging porch mouth. He also had ideas to transform the original screenplay, which had called for the house’s elderly owner, Mr. Nebbercracker, to die and animate the house. Instead, Kenan suggested a new character — Nebbercracker’s wife — a former circus performer who dies in a freak accident and becomes the Monster House.Kenan was virtually hired on the spot.

He says his chutzpah continued to sustain him through “House’s” three-year motion-capture animation shoot, which he likens to “the ultimate film school” with Zemeckis and Spielberg.

For the film’s characters and design, Kenan at times drew on his own childhood memories of creepy houses and neighbors. When he lived in Ramat Gan, he says there was a dark, shuttered house across the street from his family’s apartment; a weird woman sometimes shouted from within.

When Kenan’s family immigrated to the United States in the 1980s, an elderly custodian terrified the children who lived in his Los Angeles apartment building.

“This guy hated his wife, he hated children, sound and movement, and whenever one of those things encroached on his peace he’d let us know by smashing his cane,” Kenan recalled. “If we left any of our toys outside, he’d take them and we’d never see them again.”

The fictional Mr. Nebbercracker also confiscates toys — and looks more than a bit like that cranky custodian.

“I designed the character with the same sagging pants on a withered body, the same exaggerated and veiny hands,” Kenan said.

He adds that the greatest challenge was achieving the correct tone for “House,” which he wanted to “be scary enough not to coddle kids but not so much that they need counseling.” The result is a dark fairy tale with a happy ending, like something out of the Brothers Grimm.

Kenan feels like he’s living his own Hollywood fairy tale.

“I’m still pinching myself,” he said.

The 79th Annual Academy Awards will air Sunday, Feb. 25 at 5 p.m. on ABC.

Ikea Doll Bat Mitzvah video


Ikea Doll Bat Mitzvah by Rachel Illowsky

 

The Way of the Samurai


You couldn’t miss animation director Genndy Tartakovsky at last week’s San Diego Comic-Con International.

Like Secret Service agents blanketing a presidential gala, Cartoon Network operatives plastered posters everywhere, spreading the word of "Samurai Jack," Tartakovsky’s new series debuting Aug. 10. (Tartakovsky directed episodes of "Powerpuff Girls" and his own "Dexter’s Laboratory"). Not bad for a 31-year-old who arrived as a Russian immigrant speaking little English.

Tartakovsky will be among the hot names attending next week’s Eighth Annual World Animation Celebration. Co-sponsored by Animation Magazine and Variety, the Hollywood festival will kick-start a week of symposiums addressing cartoon industry issues.

Tartakovsky was 7 years old when he arrived in Chicago from Russia.

"The kids at school grip onto the easiest stereotype," Tartakovsky told The Journal, referring to the days when he was branded a Communist. "My parents never tried to hide the fact that we were Jewish."

The future animator learned English watching Warner Bros. cartoons and reading Marvel Comics (which inspired his "Justice Friends" superhero parody). "Dexter’s Lab" came about serendipitously after Tartakovsky was storyboarding Hanna-Barbara’s "Two Stupid Dogs," and a producer saw the young artist’s pencil test for a "Dexter’s" short. Instead of working his way up the animation ladder, Tartakovsky received his own series, Emmy nominations and commercial success. The popularity of "Dexter’s" and "Powerpuff" helped expand Cartoon Network’s viewership from 12 to 72 million. Tartakovsky called the experience "the most unrealistic thing you could think of."

"When I moved to America, I wanted to fit in and be American," said Tartakovsky, now married and expecting his first child in September. "We never tried to be too heavy handed with ‘Dexter’s, but if you look at the underlying themes of the show, it’s about a little kid trying to fit in."

The Studio City resident promises that "Samurai Jack," a valentine to cinematic masters Lean, Kirosawa and Hitchcock, will not resemble anything on television. Cartoon Network is already developing episodes for the third season. "A lot of experimental filmmaking will bring in an energy that we haven’t seen before."

"Dexter’s Laboratory" runs daily on Cartoon Network, which will premiere "Samurai Jack" on Aug. 10, 8 p.m.

The Eighth Annual World Animation Celebration runs Aug. 7-12. For information, call (818) 575-9615; www.wacfest.com.

Fine Cut: A Festival of Student Film


Student films from throughout Southern California are currentlybeing featured on the three-part KCET series “Fine Cut: A Festival ofStudent Film,” airing on Sundays at 10 p.m. The series, hosted bydirector Michael Apted, will feature a total of 17 films fromstudents at UCLA, USC, CalArts, Loyola Marymount and the AmericanFilm Institute. Ranging in length from three to 32 minutes, theentries include dramas, documentaries and animation.

Debuting last Sunday, “Fine Cut” continues this week with anotherentertaining lineup. “In the Hole,” the true story of a Queensteen-ager who steals a New York subway train for a joyride, isfeatured; “Hole” debuted at last year’s Telluride Film Festival’sFilmmakers of Tomorrow program. Also this week: Tony Bui’s impressivedebut, “Yellow Lotus,” the first American film shot in Vietnam, whichwowed audiences at Telluride in 1995 and won the Loyola Marymountgraduate a lucrative feature contract; “The Projects,” a satiricallook at California immigration policies; and “INFITD,” a UCLA dramaabout a young boy who wards off evil forces by chanting “INFITD,” anacronym for “I’ll not fall into the Devil.”

Both of this week’s animated shorts are courtesy of CalArts. MarkOsborne’s “Greener” uses a variety of techniques, including thepainstaking stop-motion and hand-coloring processes, and “Stampede”is a three minute piece created with hand-carved rubber stamps.

Next week’s installment includes “Independent Little Cuss,” winnerof the Gold Medal at the 1996 Student Academy Awards, which documentsthe story of disabled-rights activist Carole Patterson as sheprepares to marry a non-disabled man against the wishes of herfamily. Also scheduled is “Unbearable Being,” an animated short abouta personal identity crisis; the computer-generated “Cocoon”; and”Sitting in Limbo,” starring Adam Wylie (“Picket Fences”).

Buñuel in Mexico

Fans of Spanish director Luis Bunuel will want to check out theLos Angeles County Museum of Art’s current series that showcases hisMexican work. “El Bruto,” “Abismos de Pasion” (his surreal “WutheringHeights” remake), and many other works unavailable on video are amongthose featured. At LACMA’s Bing Theater, 5905 Wilshire Blvd., LosAngeles. Call (213) 857-6010 for a complete schedule.

Documentary Days

Laemmle Theatres’ current series of documentaries continues at theGrande 4-Plex in downtown Los Angeles. This week: “Colors StraightUp,” which profiles a year in the life of Colors United, anafter-school drama program for youth in Watts. The Grande is at 345S. Figueroa St. Call (213) 617-0268 for show times.

Go to The Jewish Journal’s 7 Days in theArts