Lesbian Filmmakers Earn Oscar Nod

When San Francisco filmmakers Dee Hibbert-Jones and Nomi Talisman were nominated for an Oscar for their film Last Day of Freedom, friends started asking one question: "What are you wearing?" to the Academy Awards gala.

"That was the last thing on our minds," said Hibbert-Jones, 53, an associate professor of art at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

"I thought matching socks might be appropriate," said Talisman, 49, a freelance editor and animator.

The women, who are married, have been collaborating on art for over a decade, although this is the first film for each. The 32-minute animated documentary, produced over a five-year period on a $120,000 budget, is the story of Manny Babbitt, a homeless Vietnam War vet suffering but untreated for PTSD, who commits a murder. Manny's brother Bill, the film's narrator, reports the crime, eventually leading to his brother's execution.

The film has already won prestigious awards, including best documentary short at the International Documentary Association and Full Frame film festival. New York Times film critic Stephen Holden, in a January 28 article on the Oscar nominees, wrote that Last Day of Freedom was the "most moving documentary" of the nominees, and predicted that the film "will break your heart."

The film is available on Netflix.

In a recent interview in their Mission District flat in San Francisco, the filmmakers discussed their hectic lives. The most recent chapter began at 5 a.m. on Jan. 14, when they sat in bed with their six-year-old son Max watching the live telecast of the nominations. Just as the announcements for documentary shorts were about to begin, the local station cut to a traffic announcement. Before they had a chance to go online, their mobile phone lit up with texts and calls from friends around the world.

"It's been absolutely crazy" since then, said Hibbert-Jones. "When we're not sleeping or building Legos with our son, we are working" on the film. In addition to scheduling the interviews and screening requests that have flooded in, the filmmakers are also dealing with the nitty-gritty of fundraising and distribution.

Fundraising has been a part of their life for the past five years, when they first began the film. "We basically financed it from grant to grant," said Talisman. It was produced for $120,000, she said. Fundraising efforts continue, with details about needs as well as a link to make a contribution, on the film's website, LastDayOfFreedom.net.

The idea for the film came up while Talisman was working as a media specialist for the Community Resource Initiative, a local nonprofit that collects narratives to build cases against capital punishment.

"I came home every night and told Dee that I was hearing stories that we need to tell," she said. They explored telling the stories of a number of other families, but when they met Bill Babbitt, "we knew this was our story," Talisman said.

Both are experienced at drawing, and decided to use animation because it allowed them the "intimacy" of telling a story that was "difficult to hear" because it was so sad and painful. During the film's five years of production, "we would often come home crying after hearing some of the details about what this family went through," Hibbert-Jones said.

The Babbitt family saga took place in Sacramento, when Manny returned from two tours of duty in Vietnam suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, as well as earlier mental health problems, also untreated, after several falls. 

Narrator Bill Babbitt describes his painful struggle after learning that his brother has probably committed a murder. After law enforcement assured him that they would not seek the death penalty, Bill turned his brother in. But the case was grossly mishandled by the defense team, and Manny was executed at San Quentin Prison in 1999, soon after being awarded a Purple Heart behind bars.

The film, said Talisman, "is a portrait of a man at the nexus of the most pressing social issues of our day: veterans' care, homelessness, race, class, mental health access and criminal justice." By using Bill as the film's narrator, they wanted to "give voice to a perspective that is rarely broadcast," she added.

Although this is their first film, the women have had earlier collaborations. They were part of the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts' artists-in-residence program, where they created Living Conditions, an interactive project that focused on the lives of families with relatives on death row. Last Day of Freedom is a stand-alone film that is part of that project.

Hibbert-Jones, originally from the United Kingdom, and Talisman, from Israel, both attended Mills College, where each received a master's degree in fine arts. They started dating shortly after graduation, and married in 2014. They are already planning future projects, but in the meantime are trying to cope with the attention from the Oscar nomination.

"We are so honored!" said Hibbert-Jones. "I remember we were dancing around the kitchen when we heard we were accepted" into our first major festival. "To have come so far with our first film, it's all beyond our wildest dreams."

Amidst the excitement, they haven't forgotten the question their friends all want answered: their wardrobe on the evening of Feb. 28.

"Someone in Los Angeles is dressing me," said Hibbert-Jones, "and Nomi is working with several suit companies locally" to find just the right outfit.