2016 Oscar-Nominated Documentary Shorts, by Dayne Linford
“Last Day of Freedom”
At only thirty minutes, “Last Day of Freedom” wastes no time in getting straight to its subject matter, opening on Bill Babbitt, the only interview in the film, discussing his support of the death penalty until he felt its impact wreaked upon his own family. Using Babbitt’s experiences as a lens to view this controversial issue, particularly surrounded by issues of race and mental health, directors Dee Hibbert-Jones and Nomi Talisman open up the last half-century of American history in a stinging critique of the total failure of American society and government in the case of Bill’s brother, Manny, finally executed by the culture that so thoroughly destroyed his life in 1999. “Freedom”, through Bill’s soulful eyes, details Manny’s life, from a childhood brain injury to a fraudulent (on the government’s part) two tours in Vietnam, followed by a lifetime of PTSD and schizophrenia, to his panic- and trauma-induced murder of an elderly white woman (the Babbitts are African-American), and finally through his trial and execution with a beautiful simplicity and sympathy. Bill, who not only played a key role in Manny’s life up until the end, serves as both the storyteller of and advocate for Manny’s life, his recollections animated throughout to powerful effect.
“Freedom” saves itself from some of the difficulties, and admittedly the rewards, of issue films characterized by a wider scope but finds much in just Bill’s story, his personality, and deep well of feeling and so much in Manny’s story, the almost theatrical tragedy of it, and the breathtaking realization of its factual truth. By winnowing down from various talking heads, commentators, and affected parties to just one person, not even one family, but one person who was quite literally involved in every step of Manny’s life, including his arrest and conviction, Hibbert-Jones and Talisman allow Bill to stand in the issue itself, in its multifaceted but ultimately, inevitably, arbitrary and vindictive nature. This makes his story our story, and levels the playing field from political aphorisms and intellectual what-ifs to the reality of this political policy on the ground, displaying fully its utility for political gain at the expense of unimaginable, personal loss.
A great deal of the film’s accomplishments are due to a non-traditional documentary technique, seemingly a reaction to the necessary and important limitation of Bill as a singular subject, of making the film an animated piece. They maintain Bill’s features and expressions, an essential element of his story, through rotoscoping, but allow themselves the liberty to literally animate his memories, creating a complex series of images as motifs throughout as Babbitt touches on or refers to each piece of Manny’s story. This is particularly effective in terms of Manny’s mental struggles, animated impressionistically to convey their reality and imagined qualities as one and the same, each rooted in and strengthened by the other until they are overpowering. It also highlights and colors Bill’s emotions, conveying a difficult and powerful fragility and reminding us that, now, Manny is only memory.
“Chau, Beyond the Lines”
Under director Courtney Marsh’s diligent and faithful eye, the story of Chau, a young Vietnamese boy growing into manhood severely debilitated by congenital defects due to the poisoning of the Vietnamese countryside by the U.S. Army over 40 years ago, is rendered beautifully and powerfully. Growing up primarily in a care center for children similarly afflicted by Agent Orange, the film in its first ten to fifteen minutes evokes similar, though not fictional or highly stylized, treatments such as Tod Browning’s Freaks (1932), both in that part of what catches our eyes is amazement at the variety and impact of Agent Orange’s devastation, but also in that the film pushes past the initial shock and revulsion, ultimately moral, to convey the full, stunning breadth of the humanity of these children, while still fully aware of their struggles. Chau is particularly remarkable, determined to break into artistry and clothing design and make a place for himself, not reliant on others, financially independent.
Severely debilitated to barely functional hands and arms, and with one leg stunted, Chau is determined to succeed despite, but the film never treats his story as merely an inspirational TV special about the virtues of hard work and self-confidence but instead as what it is, what Chau says it is – a story of a remarkable boy who worked hard despite every reason not to and the difficulty of depression but also got lucky. Often, as Chau begins to build the life promised in the first few minutes, he talks of his former friends at the school, whom he misses, but also is uncertain towards, as we must be. These other children – did they get lucky? Is there hope for them? The nurses at his school are reduced to these kinds of calculations, applied to Chau as equally as the others, largely because of the sheer weight of numbers and their damning implications for bright futures in the larger society. Especially at first, as we see a child lying in bed, her head swollen and misshapen to the point where it barely seems she can lift it, and another, informed he’ll soon be having surgery to cut further into the skin binding his fingers together, perhaps allowing him the ability to feed himself, offering up a broad and toothless smile as he whispers to his nurse and tenderly kisses her on the cheek – is there a future for these, as for Chau?
Even for Chau, we can’t have these answers. As he lifts himself up in his wheelchair to gaze over the skyline where he’s made his home, we’re impressed by the fleeting and transitory nature of most success, even those as hard-fought as his own, and hope that he continues to grow and flourish. But Chau exists in a world fucked up enough to have done to him what debilitates him in the first place. Can he trust it to allow him the space to salvage his life and build success? Unlike Browning’s film, where the ultimate fate of those spurning the titular freaks is to be similarly brought low, “Chau” offers some consolation but, in the small and only postscript referencing the political agendas for which so many people were killed and children deformed, it also reminds us of the world that enables his difficulties and continues to heap them upon him and, earnestly and powerfully, our own place in it.