In Animated, Oscar-Nominated Doc, A Man Turns His Brother In For Murder | KUOW News and Information

In Animated, Oscar-Nominated Doc, A Man Turns His Brother In For Murder

Feb 27, 2016
Originally published on February 27, 2016 4:54 am

An animated film is up for best documentary short at the Oscars this year. It's only the second time an animated film has been in the running since the category was established in the 1940s. Last Day of Freedom is the story of Bill Babbitt, a man who turns his brother in for murder, hoping the police will help his brother get the care he needs for PTSD.

The Babbitts' story is told through more than 30,000 drawings, most of them in black and white. They were created by Dee Hibbert-Jones and Nomi Talisman, two Northern California-based artists.

This is their first film — and they had some qualms. "There's a moment that we felt like ... It's my first documentary, I don't know how to make it," Talisman says. But they felt confident in their art. "I definitely know how to draw," she says.

Talisman says the film grew out of interviews with people making their way through the criminal justice system. They say using drawings gave them more storytelling options.

"We can use metaphors in a different way," says Talisman. "We can be more creative. We can still show Bill in a way that actually depicts him in a very accurate way."

Bill Babbitt was filmed and then that footage was used as the basis for line drawings. In the film, Babbitt describes what happened when his younger brother, Manny, came home from his military service in Vietnam.

"When Manny came marching home, limping mentally and morally, they was able to discern his physical wounds," Babbitt says. "His limps they was able to patch those up, but they never got around to patching up that war wound in his head."

Manny was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia.

"He came to America for yet another tour of duty on the battlefield, chasing shadows, imaginary soldiers," Bill recalls.

Manny was living with Bill and his family in Northern California, and one day Bill found a cigarette lighter in his brother's clothes. It had the letters L.S. on it — the initials of a woman who'd recently been murdered. Babbitt went to the police with the lighter and turned his brother in.

On the day he turns him in, Bill told Manny they were going to play pool. "I lied to my brother on his last day of freedom," Bill says.

[Ed. note: If you'd prefer not to learn about the outcome of the case at this time, please return to this story after you've seen the film.]

Babbitt thought turning his brother in would help him get the mental health care he needed. But that didn't happen.

Filmmaker Dee Hibbert-Jones says for her, the crux of the story is trust. "I think Bill believes he was holding on to the trust of the whole family, the trust of the community and also the trust of his brother, and partly in order to protect his brother he broke that trust," Hibbert-Jones says.

The case went to court and Manny was ultimately sentenced to death.

"The jury that sentenced Manny Babbitt to death never heard most of the important facts and circumstances of his life," says Craig Haney, a psychology professor at the University of California Santa Cruz who was involved in Manny Babbitt's appeals.

The jury, Haney says, never heard about "the mental illness from which he suffered, or an adequate explanation of post-traumatic stress disorder, or a meaningful account of the kinds of experiences that he went through in Vietnam that would have profoundly affected who he was at the time the crime was committed. All of those things were left out of the case."

Eighteen years after he was sent to prison, Manny Babbitt was sent to the gas chamber. His execution on May 4, 1999, was witnessed by his family and the family of the woman he murdered.

"Manny's name don't come up no more. My own family members, some of them don't want to talk about it no more. It's like Manny never even existed," Bill Babbitt says. "And what do I tell these people: I'm sorry?"

It's a guilt that he lives with every day.

"Bill supported the death penalty which killed his brother," Hibbert-Jones says. "He also really trusted in the police. He literally took the police to his brother believing that he would get the justice and his brother would get the help he needed."

To her, Babbitt is an example of someone who had every intention of doing the right thing. Now, he travels the world advocating against the death penalty. In fact, that's where he'll be this weekend, as Hibbert-Jones and Talisman are in Los Angeles for the Oscars.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

For only the second time since the best documentary short category was established by the motion picture academy, an animated film is up for an Oscar.

"Last Day Of Freedom" is the story of a man who turns his brother into the police for murder. He hopes that in the system he'll get treated for PTSD from his time in Vietnam. Instead, everything goes wrong. Karen Michel has the story.

KAREN MICHEL, BYLINE: "Last Day Of Freedom" has but one narrator Bill Babbitt and one complex story, Bill's discovery that his brother Manny was a murderer.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "LAST DAY OF FREEDOM")

BILL BABBITT: He said he was a monster. I don't see that. I see a little brother. I remember being out in the clam flats digging clams.

MICHEL: Babbitt's story is told visually through more than 30,000 drawings, most of them in black and white. They were created by two Northern California-based artists Dee Hibbert-Jones and Nomi Talisman. This is their first film.

NOMI TALISMAN: There's a moment that we felt like - I don't know. It's my first documentary, and I don't know how to make it, but I definitely know how to draw.

MICHEL: Talisman says the film grew out of interviews with people making their way through the criminal justice system. And as artists drawing the story rather than filming it, they had more options.

TALISMAN: We can use metaphors in a different way. We can be more creative. We can still show Bill in a way that actually depicts him in a very accurate way.

MICHEL: Bill Babbitt was filmed, then those images were recreated with line drawings. Babbitt tells us about his younger brother Manny enrolling in the service and being sent to Vietnam.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "LAST DAY OF FREEDOM")

BABBITT: When Manny came marching home, limping - mentally and morally - they was able to discern his physical wounds, his limps, and they was able to patch those up. But what they never got around to patching up that war - that wound in his head.

MICHEL: Manny was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "LAST DAY OF FREEDOM")

BABBITT: He came to America for yet another tour of duty on the battlefield, chasing shadows, imaginary soldiers.

MICHEL: The story reaches a turning point when Bill finds a lighter in his brother's clothes.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "LAST DAY OF FREEDOM")

BABBITT: And I looked at the cigarette lighter, and the cigarette lighter had L.S. L.S., L.S...

MICHEL: The initials of a woman who'd been recently murdered. By now, Manny was living with Bill and his family in Northern California. Bill went to the police with the lighter and turned his brother in.

BABBITT: I says brother, I'm going to teach you how to play pool this morning. I lied to my brother on his last day of freedom. Oh, God.

MICHEL: Bill thought his brother would get the help he needed.

DEE HIBBERT-JONES: For me, it's the crux of the story, which is trust.

MICHEL: Filmmaker Dee Hibbert-Jones.

HIBBERT-JONES: I think Bill believes that he was holding onto the trust of his whole family, the trust of the community and also the trust of his brother. And partly, in order to protect his brother, he broke that trust.

MICHEL: Spoiler alert - the case goes to court, and Manny is ultimately sentenced to death.

CRAIG HANEY: The jury that sentenced Manny Babbitt to death never heard most of the important facts and circumstances of his life.

MICHEL: Craig Haney is a professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Haney was involved in Manny Babbitt's appeals.

HANEY: The jury never heard, really, the substance of the mental illness from which he suffered or an adequate explanation of post-traumatic stress disorder or a meaningful account of the kinds of experiences that he went through in Vietnam that would have profoundly affected who he was at the time the crime was committed. All of those things were left out of the case.

MICHEL: Eighteen years after he was sent to prison, on May 4, 1999, Manny Babbitt was sent to the gas chamber, witnessed by both the family of the murdered woman and Babbitt's family.

BABBITT: You know, Manny's name don't come up no more, you know. My own family members - some of them - they don't want to talk about it no more. It's like Manny never even existed.

And what do I tell these people, I'm sorry?

MICHEL: Dee Hibbert-Jones says Bill Babbitt lives with that guilt today.

HIBBERT-JONES: Bill supported the death penalty, which killed his brother. He also really trusted in the police. He literally took the police to his brother, believing that he would get the justice and his brother would get the help he needed. He was someone who is trying to stand up and do the right thing, and it doesn't happen.

MICHEL: Now, Bill Babbitt travels the world, advocating against the death penalty. That's what he'll be doing instead of joining filmmakers Dee Hibbert-Jones and Nomi Talisman in Los Angeles at the Oscars.

For NPR News, I'm Karen Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.