An Israeli Filmmaker’s Animated Look at the Death Penalty

Nomi Talisman’s first documentary has made it to the semi-finals of the Oscar awards, with the story of a traumatized black U.S. war veteran sentenced to death by an all-white jury.

From the animated documentary, 'Last Day of Freedom.'
Dee Hibbert-Jones, Nomi Talisman

A few weeks ago, while filming at her son’s San Francisco school, Nomi Talisman’s cell phone started vibrating persistently. She put down her video camera, with which she had been filming the creative activities of her child’s classmates, and stepped out to find a message from her life and creative partner, Dee Hibbert-Jones. “I got a message saying that we should check our email, I’m already on-board. Bye,” wrote Hibbert-Jones, who was on her way to Leipzig, Germany, where she was supposed to present their movie at a documentary film festival.

Talisman, an Israeli-born filmmaker, had already received 15 congratulatory messages on her phone, Twitter and Facebook before she was even able to get into her email account to read the message from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts, informing her of the news: The film she had been working on for the last five years, “Last Day of Freedom,” was one of the 10 movies that had beaten dozens of other candidates, making it to the semi-finals of the Oscar awards competition in the short documentary category. Next month the final five candidates will be announced, ahead of the awards ceremony at the end of February. In the meantime, the movie has won the top award at the International Documentary Association competition.

First documentary

Talisman, an Israeli artist who’s been living In San Francisco for the last 15 years, was quite surprised, since “Last Day of Freedom” was the first documentary she and Hibbet-Jones had ever made. Both women are artists who work in diverse media such as photography, video art, animation and more. Over the years they have won various prizes and stipends, but up to now documentaries weren’t part of their creative lexicon.

It’s hard to be unmoved by “Last Day of Freedom.” In 32 minutes of beautiful animation it presents the story of Bill Babbitt, an American man who tells his heart-wrenching story to the two filmmakers. It’s about Bill’s brother, Manny, who served in the U.S. army during the Vietnam War and, left to deal with post-traumatic stress on his own, finds it hard to rebuild his life. Bill discovers that his brother, after going many years without any treatment, has committed a terrible crime. He decides, after agonizing deliberation, to turn him in to the police. The police assure him that this isn’t a crime carrying capital punishment but the all-white jury thinks differently and convicts the black, traumatized former soldier to death.

Drawing from the film.
Dee Hibbert-Jones, Nomi Talisman

“Last Day of Freedom” brings to the surface, through one individual story, a harsh indictment of the American judicial system for miscarriage of justice, and is equally critical of the U.S. army for the way it treats (or neglects) soldiers scarred by the war as well as the mental health system that fails to provide the necessary treatment to those who need it. Talisman and Hibbet-Jones’ movie forces viewers to consider how the death sentence affects the relatives of condemned men. Through tens of thousands of beautiful drawings the movie portrays a particularly ugly story of a system that is criminally negligent, causing the disintegration and shattering of numerous families.

Dead end

Talisman was born in Israel in 1966 and grew up in Herzliya. After studying photography at the Bezalel Academy in Jerusalem, Talisman registered for a graduate degree at Mills College in Oakland. She met her partner, multi-media artist Hibbert-Jones, 11 years ago. They are raising their six-year-old son, Max, together.

Most of their work in recent years has been on joint projects. Among other works they had a project celebrating the opening of the new underground railway in Yokohama, Japan. It included an interactive video display and a podcast with interviews they had recorded at different stations. They also did a project on the problems associated with immigration, such as those experienced firsthand by Talisman, in which they stood on a freeway holding up placards with drawings showing the stages of her immigration.

In the meantime, Talisman made her living at a non-profit organization providing legal assistance to people being tried for crimes for which they face a death sentence. Her role was to collect visual material for these cases, some of which was presented in court and some of which served lawyers preparing their defense arguments.

Scene from the film.
Dee Hibbert-Jones, Nomi Talisman

“Since these are very complex cases which may lead to a death sentence, the courts allow the defense to present a wide spectrum of testimonies that include photos and videos. So, we’d find family members who would tell of things that happened to the accused in his childhood or about the environment he grew up in. We’d videotape the interviews with them and then extract short clips that were presented in court” she explains.

“I was only in charge of the technical aspects, but I was exposed to fascinating stories that one almost never hears. The most interesting thing for me was the interviews with family members of the accused. One of the fascinating things was that no matter whom we interviewed, nearly everyone said that they had tried to do the right thing and raise their children under very difficult conditions, trying to help them succeed in school so that they could escape the cycle of poverty, and extricate them from this endless cycle of crime and violence. In most, if not all, cases this struggle proved to be hopeless. These stories were heartbreaking and very difficult to listen to.”

The two finally approached the non-profit group that had conducted the interviews to see if they believed there would be any public interest in them. This was when the idea of a movie started to form. They decided to conduct interviews with family members of people facing a possible death sentence, leaving until later the decision as to what format they would employ in using the material. At first they thought they’d follow their well-worn path, collecting anecdotes from the interviews and editing them into video-art displays spanning several minutes, which could be presented at different exhibitions.

“However, the more we listened it became clear that these were stories that needed to be heard from beginning to end. We understood that these were stories these people had deposited with us and we felt responsible for them,” says Talisman. This led them to dare to do something they had never attempted before – making a documentary.

“A death sentence means the taking of a convicted person’s life but if you think about it, in many cases it’s a real trauma for the family. In some places the government has a very light finger on the trigger. We were interested in what this does to the family, the community, the whole neighborhood. That was our focus, which is why we preferred not to dwell on the accused but on their families and the way this punishment affects the surroundings.”

Talisman, right, and partner Hibbert-Jones in their San Francisco apartment.
Courtesy

They ultimately chose to focus on only one interviewee, Bill Babbitt, who tells his and his brother’s story in a flowing, riveting and heartwrenching way. While the soundtrack recounts the story in Babbitt’s own voice, in a traditional linear and mostly chronological manner, the visual side of the movie draws on the diverse multidisciplinary experience of the two artists. When his image, shown in starkly minimalist fashion in black and white, sheds tears on-screen, and when he describes his brother’s deterioration due to his mental illness, it’s hard not to shrivel up in front of the screen.

The two drew a huge number of frames – around 30,000 – for this movie, and the animation keeps skipping from one style to another. When you see Babbitt speaking, his image is portrayed in minimalist delicate black and white lines, but when the animation switches to depicting his stories it shifts to illustrations combined with video clips, skipping to color-rich drawings, back to illustrations resembling charcoal drawings and so on.

The decision to make an animated film came early on in the project since the first people they interviewed, before they decided to focus on Bill, wished to remain anonymous.

“In general, I’ve made more drawings in my life than movies, so it was quite natural,” laughs Talisman. Only during the execution scene does the screen go black and dark, with not a single redeeming line of beauty. There is no illustration there that can distract you at that point.