In Animated, Oscar-Nominated Doc, A Man Turns His Brother In For Murder Last Day of Freedom uses more than 30,000 hand-drawn images to tell the story of Bill and Manny Babbitt. The film raises questions about trust, family, mental illness and the criminal justice system.
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In Animated, Oscar-Nominated Doc, A Man Turns His Brother In For Murder

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

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

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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.

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