By C. J . Hirschfield
The joys and memories of summer camp can last a lifetime. But one very special summer camp actually sparked a revolution by the largest minority group in the U.S., and a new Netflix documentary brilliantly reveals this previously hidden history.
Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution launched on March 25 following the Sundance Opening Night Premiere in January. The movie is executive produced by President Barak and Michelle Obama, whose American Factory recently won the documentary feature Academy Award. Directed by Oakland locals Nicole Newnham and Jim LeBrecht, it tells the remarkable story of a loosey-goosey upstate New York summer camp for disabled teens whose campers went on to become activists, and how their journey resulted in radical changes for inclusion.
The story is told from the perspective of Jim LeBrecht, longtime Berkeley Rep sound designer and founder of audio post-production house Berkeley Sound Artists. He attended the camp as a 15 year-old in a wheelchair, and says that today, “the camp would be shut down in a half hour!”. Run by hippies in the early seventies, Camp Jened was messy, there was smoking and sex—but a lot more. “At camp, everybody had something going on with their body; it was no big deal.” Campers and counselors (some of whom were disabled themselves) helped each other with personal assistance and everything else. They had deep discussions about their hopes and fears, and made collective decisions. Jim says “we saw our lives could be better, and we were looking at ways to do things together—even after the camp.”
A great deal of the film’s strength is due to the extraordinary footage shot in 1971 at the camp, which serves as the film’s anchor. At that time, half-inch reel-to-reel video had, for the first time, put mobile video production in the hands of cable public access activists around the country. Jim recalled that a crew had documented the camp, but finding the Jened footage would be hugely challenging—did it even still exist?
Co-director Nicole Newnham (an Emmy-Award winning producer, director and writer), spent many months trying to track down the original videographers. She eventually located Howard Gutstadt, formerly with the People’s Video Theater, and his 5-1/2 hours of footage. “It’s a miracle that it survived,” she says. Jim says it’s hard to find the words to describe how it felt to revisit the camp through the videos.
With Nicole’s expertise in documentary filmmaking and Jim’s understanding of the experience of being disabled, the artistic partnership flourished. Current interviews with former campers, including disability rights movement leader Judy Heumann, amply demonstrate the humor and compassion that accompanied the inspired activism.
Sadly, it was also a challenge to find 1977 news footage of the remarkable 25-day sit-in where 150 disability rights activists took over the fourth floor of a federal building in San Francisco, ultimately resulting in the passage of Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, a civil rights milestone in the movement for disabled equality. Judy played a key leadership role, and Jim says that “We were more scared of disappointing Judy than we ever were with the FBI or the police department arresting us.”
A little heartbreaking,” is how Nicole describes the fact that the news story wasn’t valued at the time, with much of the archival footage lost. “It’s a shame that this history hasn’t been accessible to more people,” she says.
The filmmakers are appreciative of the resources that Netflix brought to bear during the film’s production. Crip Camp greatly benefits from the use of soundtracks of the times—Buffalo Springfield, Neil Young and others.
The film also offers clips of an institution called Willowbrook; harrowing and unforgettable images of how disabled people were treated not too many decades ago. “We could have easily been there,” says Jim.
Camp Jened was shuttered in 1977; Jim and fellow campers return to the site in the present day for a poignant reunion. The film’s credits acknowledge and honor the many other campers that have passed away. The fact that many of the former campers re-located to the East Bay in California is no surprise—Berkeley’s Center for Independent Living was the first of its kind in America, offering peer support and role modeling, and run by people with disabilities.
“Could you have ever imagined where we would go?” one former camper asks.
Now we can, thanks to an important documentary called Crip Camp.
Winner of the Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival, Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution premiered March 25 on Netflix. It is available with closed captions.
Visit the Crip Camp Official Website.
Spread the word
- Organize a virtual watch party and discussion with friends and family! (If you plan to, let the filmmakers know by e-mail email@example.com)
- Like, follow, share! Use the hashtag #CripCamp.
Pam Grady interviews directors Newnham and LeBrecht for the San Francisco Chronicle.
Watch an interview in the Variety Studio (you may have to wait through an obnoxious commercial).
Listen to an interview with the directors on KCRW’s “The Business.”
Why did Camp Jened close down on Screen Rant?
Judy Heumann, a galvanizing force for disability rights explains how summer camp set her path in a New York Times interview.
Confronting shame—and accepting my disability–with Judy Heumann – interview and includes the video of Judy’s key role in the 504 sit-ins of 1977, as hilariously covered by Drunk History, to the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in 1990.
Buy Judy Heumann’s new book at your favorite local bookstore, online, as an audio book or ebook or check out from your library.
C.J. Hirschfield recently retired after 17 years as Executive Director of Children’s Fairyland, where she was charged with the overall operation the nation’s first storybook theme park. Prior to that, she served as an executive in the cable television industry and produced two series, ran San Francisco’s public access channel and has written a weekly column for the Piedmont Post for 13 years. She has also written features and reviews for EatDrinkFilms. She holds a degree in Film and Broadcasting from Stanford University.
Hirschfield is former president and board member of the California Attractions and Parks Association, and also serves on the boards of Visit Oakland and the Lake Merritt/Uptown Business Improvement District and is on the programming team for the Appreciating Diversity Film series showing free monthly movies in Oakland and Piedmont. C.J. says, “Documentaries make me a better person.”