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The birth-of-a-movement documentary is a Sundance favorite. From environmentalism to AIDS activism to Occupy Wall Street, it’s a genre that reliably informs and stirs emotions, with an occasional by-the-numbers tendency.
Nicole Newnham and Jim LeBrecht’s Crip Camp elevates itself to the top of that genre heap through smart focus, remarkable archival footage and inspiring subjects. It’s more than a simple chronicle of the origins of the disability-rights movement, and thanks to exposure courtesy of its Sundance opening night slot, a Netflix distribution deal and clout of executive producers Barack and Michelle Obama, it should be able to reach and touch a wide audience.
The title refers to Camp Jened in upstate New York. The story kicks off in 1971, with LeBrecht, born with spina bifida, taking the three-hour bus trip into the Catskills to attend a camp that he explains was for children with disabilities and run by hippies.
Just as the title is sure to give some modern viewers pause, expect some chafing at a camp for kids with wildly different levels of mobility, communication and socialization being operated by inexperienced counselors, many of whom had never interacted with a person with disabilities in their life, seemingly without the presence of doctors or trained personnel. Crip Camp offers frequent reminders that this was 1971 and things were different. LeBrecht and an assortment of Camp Jened veterans talk us through the outside world’s disability hierarchy — the polio kids on one end and the cerebral palsy kids at the other — the challenges of finding schooling or integrating into activities and how those distinctions vanished at this free-form social experiment started by camp director Larry Allison.
Multiple summers at Camp Jened were filmed by the People’s Video Theater — it isn’t mentioned if this material ever aired in a different form — and the result is an astonishing treasure trove of interviews and fly-on-the-wall observations about Jened. What’s most remarkable is how the primitive video footage balances the aspects of Jened that were unique — you’ve never seen a baseball game or swimming instruction like this — with moments that are hilarious and universal.
This is a summer camp movie, so many of the conversations are about first love, sex and, in probably the documentary’s funniest sequence, the fallout from a camp-wide outbreak of crabs. Actually, there’s a lot of competition in the first chapter of the documentary, because amid the occasional provocative conversations between the campers — one roundtable discussion about the protectiveness of their parents is especially heartbreaking — the scenes are full of chaotically jubilant music and expertly self-deprecating jokes.
Reductively, the Jened experience was about having a place where the campers could just be kids, but in the bigger picture it’s easy to see the lessons they were learning about solidarity, inclusion and, whether or not any of them knew the word at the time, intersectionality.
This is important because Jened is only one chapter of Crip Camp. The title continues to apply because even if not every second of the doc is spent in the cabins or on the playing field, the experiences at Jened become the seeds of a revolution that the doc follows from small-yet-crucial accessibility triumphs in New York City to the 504 Sit-ins pushing for the enforcement of the 1973 Rehabilitation Act, which led to protests in Washington and, ultimately, to the enactment of the Americans With Disabilities Act in 1990. At every step, the documentary points to how many Jened kids were present and central in advocating for visibility and equality.
Sensing the simple impact of the Jened footage and other news and archival material, Newnham and LeBrecht approach the storytelling with an admirably light touch. There’s much more joy and amusement elicited than discomfort, with the filmmakers directing much of their intended outrage through a news report, hosted by Geraldo Rivera of all people, looking at the nightmarish conditions at the disability-sequestering Willowbrook Institution, a harrowing contrast to the freedom of Jened. You occasionally notice the score by the prolific Bear McCreary, but it’s never mawkish and never manipulative. When you get teary, it’s because Crip Camp earns it.
The focal Jened-connected “characters” in the documentary are heroic in a wide variety of ways, and while LeBrecht, a film and theater sound designer, puts himself at the center of the story it’s usually as an appreciative admirer on the cusp of history. Likely to generate cheers is Judy Heumann, a Jened counselor, co-organizer of the San Francisco 504 occupation and a figure so inspiring she’s probably worthy of a documentary all her own. Denise Sherer Jacobson, married to fellow camper Neil Jacobson, delivers several of the documentary’s best one-liners and tells possibly its most damning story.
Maybe Newnham and LeBrecht don’t quite know how to end the film, but there’s some emotional heft to that uncertainty. It almost implies that the right conclusion to this story you probably didn’t know, which fed into the chapter of the civil rights movement that you probably should know, is to leave the documentary and immediately attempt to learn more.
My only hope is that the confrontational title and the Obama branding don’t scare some viewers away from a story that is truly non-partisan, humane and significant.
Production company: Netflix
Directors: Nicole Newnham and Jim LeBrecht
Producers: Sara Bolder, Jim LeBrecht, Nicole Newnham
Executive producers: Barack Obama, Michelle Obama, Tonia Davis, Priya Swaminathan, Howard Gertler
Cinematographer: Justin Schein
Editors: Eileen Meyer and Andrew Gersh
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (U.S. Documentary Competition)
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