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“Crip Camp:” How to Make the Personal Political (and Political Personal)

“You see that a group of folks with disabilities can rally around  and be incredibly savvy and make some incredible decisions and plans and that they affected change that all of us enjoy today.”

Jim LeBrecht has worked in film and television for over 30 years, primarily as a sound editor, designer and mixer. Most of his work has been in documentaries, such as The Devil and Daniel Johnston and PBS’ documentary series P.O.V. It follows that his first foray into directing would be a documentary.

LeBrecht shared the director’s chair with award-winning documentary director/producer, Nicole Newnham (The Rape of Europa), on their film Crip Camp, which won the Audience Prize: U.S. Documentary at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. The reality is that they shared the duties of directing, but they each had their own literal chair, his being a wheelchair. LeBrecht was born with spina bifida and has used a wheelchair his entire life. In addition to co-directing Crip Camp, he was also a featured subject in the film.

LeBrecht and Newnham, who worked together on several projects, began talking about a story he might like to tell. Initially, he wanted to focus on the disabled rights movement of the 1970s and 80s. LeBrecht had been involved and explained that he got into the movement primarily based on people he had met while at summer camp.  

The Directors of Netflix’s Crip Camp on What the Documentary Can Teach Us Today

Talking about Camp Jened, a “summer camp for the handicapped run by hippies,” as LeBrecht describes it in the film, the team realized that this was the beginning of the story. It was a way to introduce a community that is not often seen by society, a way to introduce them as just regular kids, doing the stuff kids do.

The film addresses touchy subjects right from the start with its title. “A number of us in the community, not everybody agrees with this, have tried to reclaim the word ‘crip’ or ‘cripple,’ LeBrecht tells KPCC’s The Frame. “It was very, very derogatory in the way it was used, but those of us who identify culturally that this is part of who we are, we use that term to identify with each other.”

The camp section of the film could not have been produced or at least would not be as impactful without some amazing video shot by radical video coalition called The People’s Video Theatre. Newnham was able to track down members of the group, who were coincidentally in the process of digitizing the old tape. In the footage, you witness kids, for the first time in their lives, in an environment where their disabilities are no longer important. You get to see them seeing themselves for the first time.

Life at “Crip Camp,” from the Netflix documentary by James Lebrecht and Nicole Newnham
Life at “Crip Camp,” from the Netflix documentary by James Lebrecht and Nicole Newnham

The video covers a lot of the usual summer camp stuff like swimming, canoeing, meals, campers in their cabins, first loves and sex.  That last topic would be simply titillating in typical Hollywood fare, but here the film addresses another aspect of disabled life that is not seen by everyone else. Because they are just like anyone, sex and sexuality are an important part of a disabled person’s life, especially a teenage disabled person. “Just because you have a disability doesn’t mean your hormones don’t kick in as a teenager,” LeBrecht says in the film. “I met my first girlfriend at that camp.”

Read more: Netflix Doc Crip Camp Reveals Summer Camp That Changed Lives, Helped Trigger Disabled Rights Movement

“I was instantly really attracted to this story when Jim told it to me because the way he told was infused with all the humor and love and joy that I think you see in the film,” Newnham told Kim Masters on The Business. “It was so exciting to think about bringing people into this untold history through a lens that was so fun and so kind of revolutionary. …We were able to connect the dots and draw the line between that really profound experience of liberation in the camp and the disability rights movement that evolved throughout the 60s and 70s and eventually led us to the ADA.”

At Camp Jened, LeBrecht met counselor and former camper, Judy Heumann, who was already organizing disabled people into a political force and fighting the establishment. “I was 15, so I barely knew what was going on around the world in general! This was absolutely eye opening,” LeBrecht told The Business. “The fact that Judy had filed a suit and prevailed to get her teaching position with the New York City Board of Education was so profoundly eye opening to me that we could actually have rights or be able to sue to get the freedoms and the rights that everybody else had. It didn’t even cross my mind that that was possible. So, I was fired up by the time I left that camp that summer and continued to be. It was certainly something I was holding on to as I went off to college also.”

As Newnham and LeBrecht started to work on the film, she explains to NoFilmSchool that they reached out to Huemann, asking if she thought that camp was important. Newnham remembered that Heumann replied, “Yes, it’s critically important. It was the place where we came together and saw we had a common struggle. We got to say like, ‘Hey, there are these other movements happening. Why can’t we do something like that?’”

In the second half of the film, they do do something like that.  As the film shifts to Berkeley, California, the camp video gives way to television interviews, news clips and archival footage. Huemann is seen as a spokesperson and leader when a protest to secure the signing of Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act turns into a 25 day sit-in at the headquarters of the Department of Health Education & Welfare (HEW), in San Francisco.

The protest prevailed, which opened the door to later passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the spread of the disabled rights movement around the globe.  “I think it’s a profound thing that it was this group of teenagers who were being so discounted in society, who took those ideals and really did figure out a way to change the world,” Newnham told Entertainment Weekly.

Read more: Netflix Doc Crip Camp Reveals Summer Camp That Changed Lives, Helped Trigger Disabled Rights Movement

The directors worked to make the film inspirational, without being treacly or pandering. “There’s this whole concept around inspiration porn, when it comes to people with disabilities, where people are being praised for doing everyday things that non-disabled people think is a huge accomplishment like putting your pants on,” LeBrecht told The Business. “But also knowing that we do want to inspire people to think about what their capabilities are in regards to being activists for what they see as something important in this world. Certainly by example you see that a group of folks with disabilities can rally around  and be incredibly savvy and make some incredible decisions and plans and that they affected change that all of us enjoy today.”

Crip Camp is the second film from Higher Ground, Barack and Michelle Obama’s production company. The first, American Factory, won the Academy Award for Documentary Feature earlier this year. The Obamas did see cuts of the film during the process and gave notes as well. 

“Their notes were not prescriptive. Their notes were questions raised or ideas given,” Newnham explained to The Business. “We definitely felt like we had creative freedom and the ability to finish the film the way we wanted to. Their entire team were really fantastic collaborators.” 

“They really understood the value of not just making a good film but making something that could live as some kind of major contribution to the telling of this history,” said Newnham to NoFilmSchool,com

“We really hope that it sparks this conversation about how we treat each other,” LeBrecht told The Frame. “Our film really shows the disabled community in an incredibly personal way, in a way that isn’t spectacular or over-the-top. It’s not tragic. It’s just real and it’s in our voices that you’re hearing it. It’s the hope that at the end of it you kinda say, ‘Wow, I had a lot of misconceptions and I want to have a beer with that person or I want that person to be my friend.’“

Crip Camp is streaming on Netflix now.