Dee Hibbert-Jones & Nomi Talisman


Dee-Hibbert-Jones & Nomi Talisman

From and e-mail exchange between Dee-Hibbert-Jones, Nomi Talisamn and Matthew Horton, Septmeber 2018


Matthew Horton (MH)Where did you get the idea for the film?  


Dee Hibber-Jones and Nomi Talisman (DHJ&NT): We met Bill through Nomi’s previous day job, she worked at a non- profit that defends people facing the death penalty. Nomi was the in house media person working with investigators, lawyers and witness and the family members of people on death row. She heard the stories of families whose perspectives are never heard and we decided to tell those stories. We held a number of interviews with different families and then we met Bill and heard his amazing story, and we knew he would be the focus of our film. So we set about thinking of ways to depict and describe his story.


MH: What led you to focus on Bill’s story?


DHJ&NT: Bill’s story is compelling to us because it so clearly exposes the failures in our system. Manny is failed in so many ways, his story exposes the failures not just in our judicial system but in mental health services, educational services, the military and veteran’s care. We grew up in countries that don’t have the death penalty.  Dee has lived in the US for half her life, Nomi has lived here for fourteen years.  But I think what is most compelling is Bill’s ability to humanize an issue that is so often seen in terms of sensation and judgment. His story reveals the pain and complexity and also the intrinsic injustice and lack of support his family received throughout Manny’s life. We focus on Bill’s story as the most vivid way to show the injustice of capital execution on whole communities. These families have not committed a crime yet they are judged along with the prisoner. They are often accused of having raised a monster.


MH: What inspired you to tell this story through animation rather than a more traditional style of archival and live action documentary?


DHJ&NT: Animation allows the viewer to see differently and hear stories in a new way, 

Animation allows us to visually describe experiences of fractured remembering, time as it feels slowed down, too fast or endless, experiences of endless waiting, shock, as well as surreal experiences of violence and trauma. We animate frame by frame, to create intimate relationships with each tic and gesture, to bring these characters in close. Animation also brings access to audiences who otherwise might not hear these stories. Last Day of Freedom is an animated documentary that combines frame by frame rotoscoped interviews with animated public domain archival footage (from period newsreels and government films) and imaginary landscapes animated to symbolically describe remembered events, that move beyond pure representation into psychological states. We chose animation to literally open up new ways to see and hear intense experiences instead of using stunts, actors and reenactments to describe the story.


We chose animation (a creative and accessible medium) to tell these stories as it allows viewers to see and hear intense experiences in layered, complex ways. Through animation, we are able to engage with contentious subject matter and taboo topics and speak to multiple, diverse audiences across venues. Wecombine representational hand-drawn animations of family members with imaginary landscapes that symbolically describe remembered events, moving beyond representation into psychological states. Images range from isolated, stark scenes to textured, nostalgic stories of childhood and vivid, saturated images, the depth and intensity of which reflect charged emotional states. Compressed and expanded sequences describe the families’ relationships to time as it often feels: attenuated, too fast or endless.


As stories unfold images become spare and abstract, leaving space for contemplation, response and questions. Visual metaphors enhance storylines, men fight, walk, stumble, fall, then perspectives shift as they become tiny, powerless figures in vast landscapes, on stark, isolated backgrounds. Compressed and expanded sequences describe the families’ relationship to time as it often feels: attenuated, too fast or endless. Animation literally opens up new ways to see and hear intense experiences, bringing access to new and younger audiences. Animation is also a pragmatic answer to offer anonymity to the subjects in our work- an innovative way to replace and enhance representations of memory and reenactment. The film in total took four years to complete. 


MH: Your film was received numerous awards and acclaim - an Academy Award nomination and an International Documentary Association Best Short award, among others. What has been its impact? What was the Babbitt family’s reaction to these awards and nominations? 


DHJ&NT: Last Day of Freedompremiered atFull Frame Documentary Film Festival, NC and won the Jury Award for Best Short, which qualified it for consideration at the Academy Awards. It then continued to screen at twenty-seven internationalfilm festivals, winning eleven international festival awards. Last Day of Freedom was the first animated documentary to be awarded an Oscarnomination in the documentary short category in 45 years. In the Oscar Winner predictions Slant magazine describes the film: “Sometimes, though, a film is so formally striking that it has the vanguard vote wrapped up by itself. And in a year of #OscarsSoWhite, that Last Day of Freedom also comes with a #BlackLivesMatter subtext makes this one seem like a slam-dunk.”


Last Day of Freedomlaunched Truly California’s broadcast on KQED Season 11, Northern California PBS,then won a regional Emmy. Itwas broadcast in TVO Spain, Sweden, Canada, and also screened in-flight on Canadian Airlines. Theatrical release of the film on ShortsHD™ with Magnolia Pictures, toured 200theatres, contributing significantly to national debates on Veteran’s rights, racial equity and criminal justice, with 191 press, radio and television features, interviews and reviews including the New York Times, the Huffington Post, the Military Times and the Marshall Project. The Nation described the impact of the film:  “Watching this film will remind you of all that is left unsaid in our current political food fight. Hopefully it will also push us to insist upon debate that addresses the actual consequences of governance, bewildered and thus held unaccountable for its flaws.”


To date we have lectured at 25 educational and non-profit venues internationally, in venues such as Veterans forums, film and art schools, journalism associations, public art conferences, prison reentry programs and with the Israeli police force who requested permission to use the film for sensitivity training, as well as anti-death-penalty organizationssuch as the United Nations 6thWorld Congress against the Death Penalty. Bill came with is to receive a Congressional Veterans Award for the filmBill’s family still don’t want to talk to him about Manny- he continues to speak out against the death penalty. 


MH: To have made this film in such a beautiful and intricate way - it includes over 30,000 drawings - you must have spent a great deal of time living in both Bill’s and Manny’s worlds and individual stories. How did making this film impact you personally? 


DHJ&NT: I remember sitting on the floor at MacDowell Colony artist residency with a million strips of paper wondering what an earth we were doing..and finally ending up in hysterical laughter ( rather than crying) both of us, it just felt like such an impossible task emotionally to try to describe the pain in Bill’s story.. Dee would come home in tears after each interview, overcome by the stories. Only during editing would Nomi breakdown when she re-heard the stories, (Together we interview: Nomi does all cinematography and Dee interviews.) 


I remember asking at Nomi “what are you doing?!” when she first drew the darkness around Bill’s images at the end of the movie. Then deciding that those same images were probably some of my favorites. 


Answering people’s questions, “Are you still working on that?” And “What did you do today?” And having to say “We’re still drawing.” Towards the end when we finally finished drawing images and sound design the film was 32 minutes long. Everyone told us that the length would be impossible to place in festivals and broadcast. We decided to send it anyway. When we first started working on this project we thought we would make a non-linear installation that described extreme emotional states. Then we began interviews and heard Bill’s amazing story, and we knew we had to make a linear narrative film. 


From a conversation between Dee Hibbert-Jones, Nomi Talisman and Janeil Engelstad

June 2011


Janeil Engelstad (JE): What inspired Living Condition?


Dee Hibbert -Jones (DHJ): Our principal question when we first approached this project was how could a democratic society vote to execute its own citizens? Personally we are both against the death penalty. We are both from countries that do not have the death penalty. (Dee Hibbert-Jones is from the UK and Nomi Talisman is from Israel.) Israel has a very specific relationship with the death penalty, but principally it does not exist and England doesn’t have the death penalty. So we come from countries where we do not consider this a proper form of punishment. Were interested in projects that look at power, politics and emotions. Our projects bring together deeply personal perspectives on big picture policies, seeking out ways individuals manage power systems from the mundane to the extreme. We started Living Condition after finishing a large-scale project, Psychological Prosthetics, where we were looking at emotion in politics and how people handled everyday political problems and issues. We are interested in the idea of affect and politics and how the person on the street handles what is happening in the world.


When we had the opportunity to work with the anti-death penalty advocacy group, Community Resource Initiative (CRI) we saw the death penalty as an extreme embodiment of issues we had been looking at for some time. One of the things that we both said instantly was, “How does one handle something like this? How can anybody manage to have somebody in their family commended to death and executed by the state?” We started to think about the trauma and the impact it has upon an entire community. It is the larger sense of what we have been looking at for years, the emotions that people are feeling in relation to what happens in the world.


Nomi Talisman (NT): Only in a much more condensed and extreme situation.


DHJ:  Our last project was much more diffuse. We asked the general public if we could help them handle their emotional baggage in political times, which was both a serious and satirical question. For our next project, we wanted to hone into a community and look at these questions in depth.


NT: With Psychological Prosthetics, the umbrella was really wide but the audience was really small. With Living Condition we have a specific focus. We want to reach a larger audience and talk about how people deal with trauma, under extreme circumstances. 


DHJ: We see he state execution as something that impacts everybody who allows that to happen. So rather than this being specifically a “prison project” where we are dealing with people who have potentially done something against the law and are now being punished for it, our project brings attention to the families and raises questions about a country that executes its own citizens. That is a trauma, which is even bigger even than the community.


JE: What have you discovered during the process of producing this project?


NT: For me, one thing that is interesting is that people here really see the death penalty as a part of the justice system, including one of the people who we interviewed. He said that he supported the death penalty until it came knocking on his door. One person that we interviewed wanted to interview us first to see where we were coming from. One of the first questions that she asked us was if we were for or against the death penalty. It showed us how embedded the death penalty is, not only in politics, but also in American culture and the structural organization of the whole country.


DHJ: The sense of disempowerment that one can feel in the face of a bureaucratic decision was one reason that we came to this project.  We were struggling with Nomi’s immigration and trying to keep her in the United States, which took seven years. It led us to feeling empathy for a group of people who did not do anything, yet feel entirely disempowered by a system. Their loved one may or may not have done something, but they have no power and they are basically going to deal with the trauma of a state execution.


We hope to manifest in Living Condition how deeply traumatized people are by this experience and in ways that are so visceral. We hope that the people watching the film and transmedia project will experience a visceral relationship to the trauma, not just to the crime or to the execution, but to the impact of having this sort of trauma in their life.


NT: We are we are talking to family members in three different cases. In one of them the person was released, one case was pending and in the last case the person was executed 20 years ago. So the reactions and the state of trauma in each case are very different.


We interviewed the brother of the person who was executed. He told us his story very cinematically full of details, and he was totally breaking down into tears. Through this repetition of telling he was reliving the whole story and I am sure that he has this experience every time he retells the story. The people that we interviewed about the pending case couldn’t manage to answer some of the questions. There was a block and they just didn’t go there. At one point another interviewee told us, “It’s really hard for me to listen to Bill, his story is unbearable.” Which, I can completely understand. The family of the person who was released, they too have blocked out parts of the story. They absolutely do not want to remember and talk about it, even though he is out of prison and fine. We chose to animate these stories as a way to allow the viewer to see and hear the stories in new ways that allow access and empathy.


JE: So even when there is a positive outcome to a case and the family member is released from prison, trauma is still present?


NT: Yes.


DHJ: The interesting thing about Bill was that he realized that his brother had committed a crime. He turned him in to the police with the understanding that his brother was to get psychological help and instead he was executed. So he has to live with the guilt of having done something that led to the execution of his brother. Even though it is 20 years later and he has told the story a number of times, he completely broke down. The weight of that is just extraordinary.


The generosity of the people that we were working with and the ability for them to open has been extraordinary. It was really remarkable to me because we are coming from outside of their communities, being white (the participants are all African American) and from different countries, which is something that I have to resolve for myself.


JE: Thinking about the public discourse around trauma as it relates to capital punishment, it is almost always about the victim and the trauma suffered by the victim’s family. Whether it is the media, politicians, or the general public talking we rarely, if ever, hear about the trauma that is experienced by the family of the accused.


DHJ: Almost everyone that we talked to was never asked in any official capacity to tell their story. It was shocking to learn that someone in a family could be put to death and that family is never given the opportunity to give their perspective.


NT: Which is another reason that we started this project. CRI told us that nobody has ever before asked to talk with these people or even looked at the impact of the death penalty on the whole community. Something that we did not touch upon in the video is the large movement of victim’s family members who are against the death penalty because they have gone through this traumatic experience and they don’t want to go through it again. The trauma is impacting people on both sides of the issue.


JE: Have you noticed as you interact with the participants; I know that you are going back and talking with them several times in this process . . .


DHJ: And we also show them what we have done. We want to honor the people who are participating and part of that is showing the drawings and asking them how they feel about the way we are rendering them.


JE: Involving them in that process is important for it gives them a larger voice and a role in decision-making. Do you notice a sense of empowerment taking hold within in them as they participate in this project?


DHJ: One of the things that Bill says at the end of his narrative is, “Thank you for putting that box out there.” He considers this to be a civil rights issue. So he is thanking us for giving him a soapbox for his civil rights.


JE: That is empowering. So who is your audience and where do you distribute this? 


NT: There are different audiences that this project can reach, or serve, empower and /or educate. And those audiences are very different. The final pieces, or pieces, can be a straightforward documentary and also an advocacy piece that has a particular audience. CRI will get a clip that they are going to use for training and advocacy. We are also interested in an art audience, but obviously a piece on television reaches a larger audience than a piece in a museum. So it is a piece that lives on multiple levels.


DHJ: We also want to bring the work back to the communities. We have to be careful with that, as two of the stories are still alive with either gang or other community related issues. We wouldn’t want to bring something back to a community that sparked something else. So that is something that we will work closely with CRI and other organizations on. Part of our intention is to develop the piece as a discussion point for the community. We have also talked about the possibility of webisodes connected to advocacy.


JE: Do you see or intend for a larger political or social mission with the final piece?


DHJ: Hopefully the piece changes perceptions, changes minds. It is a very slow burn in that way, which is why we were thinking of the potential of connecting advocacy to websisodes. I go back to one of themes in To Kill A Mockingbird, walking around in someone else’s shoes and how that experience can shift someone’s mind and perceptions. I have a desire for people to see themselves through this work, rather than thinking that the death penalty is not their issue because it is happening to them and not us. There is this perception that anything that is political is public and therefore we have no real power over it. I am really concerned with the apolitical relationship that people have to the greater sense of political decision-making. I would like that to see that shift and that is also a desire through this work, for people to realize that even in the sense of voting they have personal power.


NT: Another thing to consider is that we live in a country divided by states that have very little social responsibility and this is one thing that they do take on. “We kill people, but we don’t necessarily provide them with health care, but we kill them.”


DHJ: That’s a really good way of putting it, because we both come from failed social democracies of one sort or another. The sense of social responsibility and the sense that you can govern your community on a political and personal level doesn’t really exist. Something that we are trying to create is the understanding that there is a link between what happens to you personally and the major decisions that are made politically.