'Last Day of Freedom' Filmmakers on Animation, Trauma and Loss
By Tom White
Editor's note: Over the next few days, we at IDA will be introducing our community to the films that have been honored by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences with an Oscar® nomination in the documentary category. You can see Last Day of Freedom on Saturday, February 27 at 6:25 p.m. at the Writers Guild of America Theater as part of DocuDay LA.
Making a film about PTSD opens up many creative possibilities to render mental trauma in a cinematic fashion. For filmmakers Dee Hibbert-Jones and Nomi Talisman, animation served as the best medium to capture Bill Babbit telling the story of his brother Manny, a Vietnam veteran who could not escape the war in his mind—and paid a tragic price for it. With music by Fred Frith and sound design by Jeremiah Moore, Last Day of Freedom takes viewers on a sad and surreal journey. The film has earned numerous accolades on the road to the Academy Award nomination, including an IDA Documentary Award for Best Documentary Short.
We talked to Hibbert-Jones and Talisman by Skype and by phone about the process of making their film and the many issues it addresses.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
When you were pursuing ideas for your film, how did you arrive at the subject for Last Day of Freedom?
Nomi Talisman: I had a day job as a media producer for a nonprofit in San Francisco that does death penalty plea work, and we used to interview witnesses with them. Their specialty is mitigating circumstances, mostly mental health issues. So I would interview people like Bill, who had a close family member on death row, and sometimes community members, experts, teachers. And I would tell Dee, "These are amazing stories. They're really heartbreaking."
We went back to the organization and we said, "We'd like to do something." Because neither of us come from a film background—we come from an art background—we thought it was going to be a little installation, maybe with a little bit of video in it. We got some recommendations to talk to people, we did several interviews, and we came back and we said, "We really think it needs to be a film, it really needs to be a story, and we really want someone who can actually look back and track events and tell a story from beginning to end."
So they recommended Bill to us. Before we talked to Bill, we questioned how much we wanted to include PTSD in a story that was so complex and layered. PTSD is obviously a very prominent factor in both the people we interviewed and the defenders. But in Bill's case, because Manny was a Vietnam vet and because of his brain injury as a child, it was much more prominent than we anticipated.
So the film was, first of all, about the situation that a person finds themselves in, but because of this particular story, it came to be so much about PTSD.
Dee Hibbert-Jones: Nomi and I have been working together since 2004, and the majority of our films, new media and exhibition projects have been about individuals who find themselves in extreme circumstances that connect to larger systems and subjects. Nomi came back from her day job saying, "Well, the experience of the families of prisoners on death row are such an extreme version of that." Looking at the families, you'll find them implicated and judged for issues that are frequently nothing that they are personally connected to.
Nomi mentioned that you both came from an art background and you had initially envisioned this film as an installation and you ended up making an animated documentary. Particularly in talking to Bill, how did you determine that animation would be the best artistic solution for telling Bill's and Manny's stories?
When we came to Bill's story, we began with the idea that we were going to look at hesitations and stutterings and trauma and silences, which is ridiculous because Bill is such an eloquent storyteller. But then we realized we didn't want to chase his story—we didn't want to either re-enact his story or have whatever he was directly telling be what was happening on the screen. So that added to our belief that animation could be an exciting way of working with this because we could work metaphorically.
We could put you into Manny's mind. We could put you into Bill's mental state—the memories, the isolations—through these drawings. So animation started out as a way to handle an issue, and became a powerful way to tell a story beyond the actual literal storytelling that Bill so powerfully does on his own.
I thought of Waltz with Bashir, mainly because it's about memory and traumatic memory, and how we process traumatic memory, which is not always a perfect rendering of one's experience; it's more of an abstract one, and something that gets to a deeper truth about trauma. Did you think of Waltz with Bashir as an inspiration for Last Day of Freedom?
NT: We know the film. I actually grew up in Israel and I met Ari Folman many years ago. We were really looking into different ways that animation has been used. One of the films that we really liked—not necessarily for all of the visuals, but for how inventive it is—is Ryan. Even though our animation looks nothing like it, Ryan was very inspiring to think about how different parts can be presented from different points of view. The way that we worked is so similar to drawing, in some ways more even than Waltz with Bashir. There are lot of places where we started with a blank page with very little on it, and I think that people buy into it and understand the landscape to be both real and unreal because they know the language of drawing.
What we tried to do is in different scenes that have different emotional resonances, or refer to a different era, is match the tone with what you see on the screen. For example, we took all the archival footage from the exact same locations where Manny was in Vietnam and we looked into a way to somehow reference that type of footage with charcoal drawings on paper, which seemed to be the closest to 16 mm footage; it had an analog quality to it.
So we tried to match things back and forth. In regard to layering history and memory within animation, it's easier to accept it as a viewer. Even though we have some stuff that definitely doesn't look like real, a lot of it is based on real footage and real things. So it's kind of accurate in reality, but then we pushed it to the language of drawing.
DHJ: We were absolutely inspired by all sorts of animation and also different filmic qualities. We also looked at drawing and illustration and graphics, so we really tried to lean back into our backgrounds to be inspired by it—line quality, texture, the framing on a page and some of those kind of qualities we were really thinking about. I mentioned this once before in an interview: Tatiana Trouvé, who's actually a sculptor and she does incredible drawings, was an incredible inspiration because her drawings are so minimal and removed and clean.
Given what you just told me about your process, what were the key challenges in being true to Bill's and Manny's stories and to your vision of how their stories would be rendered cinematically?
DHJ: Well, one of the true challenges of any animation is the amount of drawings. There are literally 32,000 drawings. [For example], there's a moment when the windshield wipers are going back and forth. Nomi started thinking about this idea of having this swipe when you have two kinds of states, one of which is Bill's and the other Manny's, so that raindrops on a windshield could look like explosions, and then you could be wiped away. And I wasn't convinced by the idea. She kept saying, "Wait a minute, it's just two weeks. Let me just do the drawings first." And then I saw them and said, "OK. I can see that looks pretty good."
So that's literally the time it takes to create an idea. And then there's the fact that you're representing a real experience to someone, so we worked closely with Bill to make sure that he didn't feel like he was being drawn in a way he didn't feel comfortable with. In fact, I was interested to discover that when we broadcast, we had to get Errors & Omissions insurance; apparently, one of the highest insurances is for animation because people sue for that.
Bill was really excited by the way we represented him. Even thinking about that, how does one describe an individual who's so strong and so frail and broken at the same time, through line quality? For a long time we really worked on how thick that line should be— should it be broken? Should this line be drawn? How close in? Does it feel comfortable for him? For us? Aside from how does one represent an execution, how does one represent the driving-up to witness your brother being executed?
And that's what was so exciting about working collaboratively: We broke the whole film down into sectional scenes and then worked on them metaphorically before we started drawing, to think about how each section could be drawn and should be drawn and emotionally what we thought the tenor of those pieces were. And we were lucky enough to be able to work with Bill and have that dialogue with him.
I want to shift to the sound and the music. Fred Frith is pretty known quantity. Did you always have him in mind as a composer/performer?
NT: Fred was absolutely our top choice. We both got out Masters at Mills College, where Fred was teaching music, so we knew him. We just approached him and said, "Look, we have this film. We don't know how much you charge for this, and we don't know if you're interested, but we'd really like to work with you." And the first thing that he asked was, "Why me?" We wanted somebody who really knows his craft. The other thing is, his conversations vary so much and he has a lot of experience working with film.
We were thinking back and forth about what kind of sound we wanted. We showed him the film; it wasn't fully animated but it was quite a bit of the design. He had a bunch of ideas, but when he went to studio to record it the first time, he changed his mind and said, "You know, this is like a blues composition. Bill is the singer, he's telling a story and everything else should be arranged around it. Bill's the main instrument." So he went with that.
And then we worked with a very good sound designer, Jeremiah Moore, who had done a lot of work on documentaries too. He put in all of these other layers and in the last mix we were thinking of how to use the sound to punctuate Bill's story. And the great thing is, Fred can do more with less notes, which was definitely another thing that we were interested in.
When we sit now in the theater and actually listen to the whole thing with a good sound system, it's really incredible to see all these layers and experiences that you get from two very talented people. And yet the main thing is Bill's story and his voice. So that was so important to us, and we're so pleased that both of them totally got it.
DHJ: For me I was really appreciative of the fact that both of them—because they're such consummate professionals—could afford to have Bill's voice be prominent and really foreground that voice. Nobody had a big ego and needed their part to be larger than the story of this man telling his story.
How did Jeremiah Moore and Fred Frith work together? What was their process?
NT: The process was through us, so we worked with both. So first Fred came up with a composition, we toyed around with it, went back and we were in studio with him, working, and then we took that to Jeremiah, we worked with him on all of the sound compositions and then on the stems. There was a moment where we hacked apart all the stems of all the different sounds he had made, and we were sitting with Fred and all of the sudden we realized, "Oh my God, we just messed with Fred's composition!"
He was really generous and he said, "Hey that's good. Well, if you did that we should do this." So we worked between the two; we went back and forth. They never sat together. They were generous enough to allow us to have a very heavy hand in it and be really clear about what we wanted. So it was a lot of collaborative engagement.
There's a wealth of issues in the film—PTSD, mental health, the death penalty, racism, veterans rights, the justice system. Have you worked with, or shown the film to, organizations that address these issues? What's the future of the film as an outreach and education tool?
NT: We worked with the organizations pretty closely, and during the time we worked on the film, we had managed to gather a pretty extensive list of advisors from all these fields. And we've done some screening in these places. We worked quite closely with Equal Justice USA; besides death penalty work, they really work hard in restorative justice, which is very interesting to us. The same goes for Community Resource Initiative, an organization that we worked with.
We also did several screenings in law schools. What we hope to do with the rest of the project is other interviews. We have some funding to create a series of short films with people who are in the same situation as Bill. This collection of films will also add some political context to these issues and, as with Last Day of Freedom, will have a pretty strong educational and outreach component.
DHJ: We have advisors who are specialists on botched executions, we have advisors on racial justice, we have advisors in psychology—pretty much a broad range of issues. This morning I got an email from Bennington College saying that there was a professor of psychology who's interested in showing the film.
We have connections from law schools, we have connections from film schools. We're hoping that we could work within those organizations and with individuals who are already committed to these issues, and also work outside and try to reach other communities. One of the most powerful groups we reached was Mission High, which is a high school in San Francisco. At the end of the film, the class started this whole conversation about whether or not Bill is a snitch and whether or not it's okay to kind of shuck your brother. What does it mean to have responsibility and civic responsibility? And all of those kids are from the most impacted areas of Bayview-Hunters Point in San Francisco.
So we really are trying to reach out to different communities. We just signed an educational distribution contract, and we're really invested in continuing this project. We're still fundraising for that to try to get other stories and also have our advisors bring facts and information to it so we can keep bringing these issues to the fore—all the issues you were talking about and also notions of infrastructure, educational failures that happened to Manny so early in his life, medical support. There really are so many issues that this story touches on.
Tom White is editor of Documentary magazine and content editor of documentary.org.