Dee Hibbert-Jones and Nomi Talisman, San Francisco-based artists, activists and educators, have a long history of confronting social injustices through their art practices. Their collaborative work — which includes performances addressing the bureaucratic slog of their attempts to get Talisman a U.S. visa (back when same-sex couples had no legal standing) — has now taken the form of animated documentary filmmaking.
The duo’s short Last Day of Freedom, currently traveling the film festival circuit, is centered on Bill Babbitt and the story of his younger brother Manny. Bill narrates the life events that took Manny from childhood happiness to adult instability. When Bill suspects Manny is responsible for a terrible crime, he must turn his brother in, a heartbreaking decision that leads to Manny’s murder conviction and execution by the state of California.
Rendered through hand-drawn cells with a deep sensitivity to emotion and gesture, Last Day of Freedom humanizes its subjects through a meticulous attention to detail. The short opens season 11 of KQED’s Truly CA on Sunday, Oct. 25 at 6pm, but you can watch it online today. I visited the artists in their Mission District home to find out more about the making of the film.
The story is told so beautifully by Bill. Did you ever consider including narration from another source, or contributing any authorial hand on your part?
Dee: We were really clear that we didn’t want ourselves in the story, either. We wanted the story to be told from the perspective of someone who’s directly impacted. We hoped to reach the viewer emotionally, rather than pull you out and analyze the story. To show you a perspective that you don’t usually hear, and you don’t usually see, that allows the viewer to walk in Bill’s shoes.
Nomi: While our advisers gave us ideas of some ways to Bill’s story, we never imagined their commentary would be part of the film.
There’s a real mix of visual styles in the film — from line drawings to splashes of color to more fuzzy charcoal-like renderings. How did you make the decision to animate parts of the story in certain ways?
Dee: We talked a lot about metaphors. We thought hard about how we wanted Bill drawn. He would be strong, but with a thin line that’s almost so delicate that — if you’re not careful — it could break. We were really sure that we wanted the archival footage to feel as if it was from a particular time. For the rest, we started to think about in those moments where Manny’s mental state is devolving and Bill is losing control. Basically you start having these moments where the war is coming back. I think the hardest piece to animate was, obviously, the execution. This is partly why we decided to make it almost completely blank, so you had to pay attention and just listen to what Bill was saying.
You didn’t have actual footage of the trial, but at that point in the narrative, the animation really shows how they were reduced to a case that was being passed from hand to hand, where compassion was replaced with political maneuverings.
Nomi: We wanted to represent bureaucracy. You see a lot of stamping and papers.
Dee: And hands.
Nomi: It’s political.
Dee: We basically started looking at political campaigns online, just for inspiration. To see, “Oh, yeah, there’s the dancing girls, and the handshaking,” and what is that bureaucratic thing? Every time we drove by a poster, or browsed a newspaper we’d go, “See? That’s the imagery we want.”
As romantic partners, how did you arrive at this collaborative practice? Did you find it was a natural outcome of your relationship?
Nomi: Well, we fight well! We know how to argue and come out with a better solution.
Dee: Partly, it’s infuriating to collaborate with anybody. It’s really annoying. On the other hand, it’s more than the sum of what you could do on your own. We found with Nomi’s background in media and photography, and mine in public engagement, new media and drawing, we brought other components to the project.
The film is made up of somewhere around 32,000 individual drawings and you spent four years on this project. How did you manage that?
Dee: Once we had a radio cut of Bill’s audio we drew animations for two years straight. The animation was taking us so long we realized we’d be there for the rest of our lives, so we worked with a small group of animators to do the in-between drawings, once we designed each image. We never realized how tight our drawing styles are, what our understanding of the project was, until we started trying to work with other people.
How does running the film festival circuit compare to operating in the gallery and fine arts world?
Nomi: Somebody I know said the filmmaking process is not necessarily democratic, but it has to be collaborative. Filmmakers know that even when they do everything themselves, they still have to work with other people on sound design, post production, etc. Creating art projects can often be a much more isolated process. In documentary, you have to deal with real things. There’s something really refreshing about actually dealing with some reality or people who care about things beyond the aesthetics, or beyond themselves and beyond their own practice.
Dee: I think most significantly the potential reach of the work seems broader. Creating something for a gallery or a museum, it stays within the walls. This travels.