After months of expectation, in April 2019, Barack and Michelle Obama announced the first TV and film projects for their Netflix-based banner Higher Ground Productions. The expansive slate included splashy projects like an adaptation of Pulitzer-winning novel Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom, a period drama from Oscar winner Callie Khouri titled Bloom, and an anthology series based on a New York Times’ obituary column, Overlooked. Tucked at the end of the highly anticipated list of titles was the news that Higher Ground had acquired a still in-production and little known documentary: Crip Camp.
Due to a confluence of Hollywood factors — from the streaming wars to the current “Golden Age” of documentaries — after a five-year-long production process, Crip Camp will now open this year’s Sundance Film Festival.
As Barack Obama was wrapping up his second term in the White House, Crip Camp began its journey to the screen during an hours-long lunch in Oakland, California between collaborators Jim LeBrecht and Nicole Newnham. LeBrecht, an award-winning feature and theatrical sound designer and mixer, has worked for decades with Bay Area-based doc filmmakers, including on three features from Emmy-winning doc producer and director, Newnham. For several years, LeBrecht, who was born with spina bifida and serves on the board of the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund, had been attempting to convince his most frequent collaborators to tackle a documentary that focuses on disability and the disability rights movement.
“I worked on all of these incredible films that were really making an impact on the world, and there were still very few documentaries that were about disability,” he says.
So, it was over lunch that LeBrecht was tossing out several ideas to Newnham for possible features when he brought up summer camp. “He says, ‘I really want to make a film about my summer camp,’” recalls Newnham. “I said, ‘Why?’ And then what came out of his mouth blew my mind.”
LeBrecht told Newnham about Camp Jened, a summer camp for teens with disabilities near Woodstock in Rock Hill, New York. LeBrecht grew up in nearby Westchester County and attended the camp in the early 70s, alongside fellow campers and counselors that would soon become leaders in the disability civil rights movement of the late 1970s and the activist heading historic protests, all of which would eventually lead to the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act. Luckily, Jened alumni and former counselors had a Facebook page.
“I was seeing people with disabilities pictured in a way I had never seen before. There was this punk attitude — like kids flipping off the camera,” says Newnham of the images that were splayed across the social media page. While the photographs painted an introductory picture to life at camp, the filmmaker knew they couldn’t fill a feature with snapshots. “We still had this question: ‘How are we going to show the camp?’”
The answer would come from one day in the summer of 1971. LeBrecht, then a 15-year-old camper, remembers a group of revolutionary-looking videographers from New York City showing up at camp with newly released portable black-and-white video cameras. “They strapped this heavy video deck to the handlebars of my wheelchair and handed me a camera and someone pushed me around camp,” he recalls. Knowing that footage of the camp did exist, somewhere, the filmmakers spent months scouring the internet for its possible whereabouts. Eventually, the search led them a couple of miles up the highway to Berkeley.
Filmmaker Howard Gutstadt was a co-founder of The People’s Video Theater — a group of radical filmmakers that experimented with using video to document the life and politics of the ’70s, which included filming New York’s first Women’s Liberation March, the first Gay Pride March, and a-day-in-the-life of the occupants of Camp Jened. By the time Newnham and LeBrecht had found Gutstadt, he had re-located to the Bay Area and was in the process of digitizing the five hours of camp footage. For decades, the footage went largely unused save for a short documentary that centered around an outbreak of crabs among the camp’s counselors that would occasionally appear on local access cable in the ’70s. “I went out to college in San Diego in ‘74 and my dad would call me from New York every once in a while and say, ‘Your crab documentary is on again,’” LeBrecht laughs.
With the footage from the People’s Video Theater, the co-directors had what they needed to build out their doc. “When we got the footage, I couldn’t believe what was there,” Newnham says. “It was all these feisty young people in the process of finding their voice. Suddenly we had the ability to take the viewer and drop them into the world.” For LeBrecht, the footage acted as a pivotal discovery as both a filmmaker and subject: “As we opened up each reel, I was thinking, ‘Who am I going to see?’ It was like going back to camp every day while working on this film, which has been bittersweet because I wish I could go back there today.”
Crip Camp draws a direct line between Camp Jened and the civil rights movement that followed. “The camp was a pebble being thrown in the water and you just keep seeing these ripples from the power of the community,” Newnham says. The filmmakers began parsing through the footage, identifying counselors and campers like Judy Heumann, a leader in the disability community who worked for the World Bank and the state department. Camp Jened alumni would go on to establish the Center for Independent Living, the Berkeley-based organization that provided services for people that included wheelchair repair, assistance finding accessible and affordable housing and vocational training. Others would famously occupy the Health, Education, and Welfare offices in San Francisco in 1977 for 28 days, the longest non-violent occupation of a federal building. Archival footage of these touchstones are spliced in throughout the film but, as Newnham notes, having LeBrecht conduct the film’s talking head interviews and guide the narrative was integral in establishing Crip Camp’s perspective as something beyond merely educational.
“If I or anyone else without a disability tried to make this documentary, it would have been another history documentary,” she says. “Every step of the filmmaking process was informed by the life experience of someone with a disability. As someone who has gone into communities and made films about people with life experience I didn’t know about, it was really powerful to observe the difference.”
This viewpoint is also what kept Crip Camp from falling into the category that the LeBrecht describes as “inspiration porn.”
“So many of the tropes out there are either of the depressed and horrible life of someone who has acquired a disability, or someone that overcame their disability and wound up climbing Half Dome with their pinkies, but you don’t see that much in between,” he says. “[Ours] wasn’t a fight to be extraordinary. This was a fight to have a life of one’s choosing.”
By the summer of 2018, when Crip Camp was accepted into the 2018 Sundance Documentary Edit & Story Lab, Submarine Entertainment, the production and sales company whose doc track record includes Citizenfour, Three Identical Strangers and Ask Dr. Ruth, had signed on to the project. Along with the directors, producer Sara Bolder, exec producer Howard Gertler and the Submarine team — made up of Josh Braun, Ben Braun and Matt Burke — had begun to consider the best way to get their movie in front of audience.
Ten years ago, a doc like Crip Camp could have gotten lost on the festival circuit, but docs have since become appointment viewing. Nonfiction features Won’t You Be My Neighbor? and RBG became box office breakouts, festival title Knock Down the House earned a price tag that rivaled Sundance’s star-fronted narrative features, and streaming docs like Netflix’s Fyre and Hulu’s competing Fyre Fraud provided weeks worth of fodder for Twitter. The producers were hoping Crip Camp could be the latest entry in an era that has been dubbed an industry-wide boom in nonfiction storytelling.
In May 2018, it was reported that the Obamas had signed a production deal with Netflix, by far the highest-profile pact in a string of nine-figure deals that was meant to secure industry talents like Ryan Murphy and Shonda Rhimes ahead of the streaming launches from other studios. For their part, the Obamas then tapped filmmaker and Annapurna alum Priya Swaminathan to guide their forthcoming banner.
Knowing that Netflix had already been tracking Crip Camp, Submarine’s Josh Braun reached out to Swaminathan to see what type of projects they were looking for. Her response, as he remembers it, was that it was “way too early” but she was willing to look at footage. After sending over a sizzle reel, Braun says Swaminathan told him “’I want to show this to the team.” Needless to say, Braun was excited: “Because you know what she means when she says ‘the team.’”
Swaminathan and Higher Ground co-head Tonia Davis traveled up to Northern California and sat in the editing bay with LeBrecht and Newnham, offering notes on a rough cut of the doc before telling the directors that they wanted to come on board for Crip Camp. “They said they would love to partner with us on the project and we were overwhelmed to hear the president and Mrs. Obama felt the same way [about the movie],” says Newnham. Crip Camp sold to Netflix/Higher Ground in a deal in the low seven figure range, according to a source familiar with the deal. At the 2019 Sundance Film festival, Participant Media’s American Factory was purchased in a similar deal with the streamer and banner for a reported $3 million. American Factory just earned Higher Ground its first Oscar nomination.
For the LeBrecht and Newnham, the hope is that Crip Camp can do for the disability rights movement what 1984’s The Times of Harvey Milk did for the public understanding of gay civil rights. “There really hasn’t been a film that resets the attitude of society around disability,” LeBrecht says, with Newnham adding, “We want Americans to hold this story as a part of who we are.”