SUNDANCE 2020 FILM FESTIVAL REVIEW! You can’t fight for something that you don’t know exists. That is the fundamental message that drives the fantastic new documentary Crip Camp from Nicole Newnham and Jim LeBrecht. Using LeBrecht’s childhood trip to Camp Jeden in the New York Catskills as the genesis of the American’s with Disabilities Act, we see what happens to a group of marginalized individuals who are given the chance to grow and dream outside of their society-enforced confines. The result is a cheer-inducing triumph of humanity.
LeBrecht was born with Spinal Bifida. “I was only supposed to live for a few hours.” He says in voice-over, “I had other plans.” Growing up, he was cared for by his parents and essentially living. This came his fateful trip at the age of 15 to a summer camp. Opened in the late 1950’s Camp Jeden catered to those with disabilities in a way that most others did not. Providing a safe space for the teens to exist, free from the judging stare of others, they were given the opportunity to grow. Boy, did they. Thanks to archival video footage shot by the People’s Video Theater, we meet youngsters who, for the first time, are shown the respect that any person deserves.
Crip Camp pivots focus onto Judy Heumann, a polio survivor who used a wheelchair who, at the age of 23, acted as one of the camp counselors. Early on at the camp, we see her desire to not only take charge but to lead by extending respect to each and every person at the facility. Of course, camp ends, the kids go home, but the seeds of change have been planted. It was entirely possible for them to live and do so happily. Heumann, after leaving the camp, moves to Berkley and soon becomes the driving force behind making the lives of disabled individuals far more livable.
“We see what happens to a group of marginalized individuals who are given the chance to grow and dream outside of their society-enforced confines.”
Newnham and LeBrecht weave a narrative from multiple archival sources that capture the innocence, the subtle awakening, and ultimate determination of a small group of disenfranchised who suddenly realized that there was something to fight for. The tone is hardly ceremonial. At one point, a girl is explaining to the camera how she became disabled in a bus accident. “Congratulations!” yells one of the other disabled campers to irreverent laughter from everyone. It’s the levity and sincerity that underscores the mission behind fighting for equality.
With a hell of a lot of persistence, this small group that spent the summer of 1971 at camp changed the country and the way that individuals with disabilities are perceived and treated in the United States. It begs the question; What other good could come from the simple act of treating each person with the respect they are entitled to? There really is no harm in trying is there?
Crip Camp screened at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival.
"…"...a cheer-inducing triumph of humanity.""