On Tuesday, February 3rd, reporter Steve James moderated a conversation with the two co-directors and one of the subjects of the Netflix Documentary Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution, via an online webinar.
“Crip Camp” begins with the story of Camp Jened, which was a groundbreaking summer camp that housed disabled teenagers in the early 1970s, in the Catskills. For most of the campers, Camp Jened was a utopia where they were finally able to experience full inclusion as human beings. This documentary also follows some of the members of the camp as they become activists for the disability rights movement and showcases the crucial role they play in the passage of the Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990.
“Crip Camp” was executive produced by Barack Obama and Michelle Obama, as well as, Tonia Davis, Priya Swaminathan, and Oscar-nominee Howard Gertler. It was co-directed by Emmy Award-winner Nicole Newnham and Jim LeBrecht who also mixed the film and was a former camper. Judith Heumann, who was one of the subjects of the film and participants in the Q&A, is recognized internationally as a leader in the disability community.
To begin the Q&A James, the moderator, asked LeBrecht why he felt this film needed to be made. “Over the years I’ve mixed a number of wonderful documentaries, there is an incredible doc community here in the bay area. I’ve seen the power of documentary film and I felt like that there was a story around disability that I wasn’t seeing about a lived experience and about a piece of history” LeBracht said. He also explained that he had worked with Newnham for many years and that he has mixed three of her previous feature-length documentaries. Lebrecht shared that they became friends through working together and that when she was wrapped up her previous film he invited her to lunch and pitched her ideas.
Next, James asked Newnham what made her interested in taking on this project. She said, “to be totally honest I probably had some sort of stereotypical ideas for what a camp for handicapped kids in the 1970s was like and then Jim starts describing it and it was that clash between that expectation and the reality that he was describing. ‘I’m like hippies, and make-out sessions behind the bunk, and you thought you could smoke dope there. Woodstock is right down the street and you guys are finding yourself in the kind of full flowering of the Civil Rights Movement and you think it’s connected to the takeover of a federal building in San Francisco seven years later.’” Newnham also explained that LeBrecht’s explanation of Camp Joined was “just full of so many surprising things and also just really seemed to represent a way that Jim had changed my mind around disability over the course of time that he and I had become friends as colleagues. He began to make me see disability as a civil rights issue. He started to make me see disability as a community and a culture in a way that I never had. So here with this time period and the community and the kind of synergy and the idea that this camp was a spark of a movement it seemed very exciting.”
James then mentioned how impactful the real-life footage from the campers’ time at Camp Jened was in the film and how paramount it was that the campers themselves had the opportunity to shoot the film. Lebrecht added, “what really became apparent to me very early on is that these folks could have come into the camp and asked the camp director how are you taking care of these “handicapped children.” But they came in, and you see in the film, they said ‘we are the People’s Video Theater help us make a film about your camp.’ Having that kind of respect and agency, especially as young adults and teens and such with disabilities. I mean I look back on that and it was stunning to me but that’s who they were. They wanted to take this new technology and bring it to marginalized communities. And look the out-birth of them entreating us to really participate with them, as opposed to simply being observed, was this kind of seminal moment in the film, where there is this discussion around a table, our message to our parents and without them doing that we wouldn’t have this incredible moment captured.”
Then former camper Judith Heumann spoke on her time at Camp Jened. Heumann mentioned that she began attending this camp at age twelve and that it was a great place for her to really come into herself. She said, “some of the kids that were at the camp I also went to elementary school with, and then when I moved on to high school we went to different schools. But it was an important opportunity to begin to discuss barriers that we were facing in a way that also enabled us to look for solutions. Clearly, at 12,13,14,15, we didn’t necessarily have the clarity of what we were going to exactly do but we very much did have clarity that we needed to move away from compiling about problems to addressing them. And it enabled us to have discussions about how we felt about discrimination. How we felt about how we were treated in the broader society and really being with other disabled people was very important because we had similar stories, which really enabled us to come up with visions of what things could be.”
James also mentions that he was struck by how comfortable all of the subjects in the film appear and how funny and unguarded many of them are. He then asks the directors if humor was on their minds when they were piecing the film together. Lebrecht responds, “absolutely, if you think of the tropes that we typically see around disability in the media it’s usually this very depressing story or Heroicism. But for the love of God there is such humor and joy in every community and why not in ours? And indeed that is the case. The humor and dark humor occasionally that I’ve experienced over the years in my community is extraordinary.”
In speaking about her experience watching the film with an audience and the feedback she had received on the film, Heumann noted that she got a lot of similar reactions from many of the documentary filmmakers she spoke with. “One of the main things that people kept saying was why didn’t we know this story. And ultimately after the fourth or fifth however many showings where people were saying that I was like ‘Well you are documentary filmmakers. Why didn’t you want to know this story?’ Because it’s not that things weren’t out there.” She also added that it’s important that people begin to see the value of story and that there are one billion disabled people in the world and there are potentially one billion different stories to be told.
To close the Q&A, Newnham spoke on how the pandemic had put a stop to their in-person screenings but she has since been part of creating a virtual “Crip Camp”, where disabled people could come together and share wisdom, in sixteen different sessions throughout the summer. Newnham said, “by the end of the summer they had built a global community. Ten thousand people came from 57 countries and I think it’s just really a beautiful example of the power of a story like this because it was the spirit of community and the values that the people saw embodied in Camp Jened that I think made people feel comfortable and open to come into a community like that.”