'Crip Camp' Directors Grappled With a Question: Did a Teen Summer Camp Really Launch the Disability Rights Movement?

TheWrap magazine: “My jaw hit the floor, because I never in my life imagined a radical hippie summer camp for teens with disabilities in the ’70s,” says co-director Nicole Newnham

A version of this story about “Crip Camp” first appeared in the Documentaries issue of TheWrap’s Oscar magazine. 

One of the documentaries that opened the 2020 Sundance Film Festival, “Crip Camp” looks at Camp Jened, an upstate New York summer camp for disabled teens that helped inspire many key figures in the disability rights movement. It is a collaboration between documentary director Nicole Newnham (“The Rape of Europa”) and Jim LeBrecht, a sound mixer who himself attended the camp.

How did the idea for this film come about?
JIM LEBRECHT I’ve been mixing documentaries for about 25 years, and Nicole was one of the people I’ve worked with. We’ve had incredible times and become friends, and when Nicole was wrapping up her last film, I invited her to have lunch, to pitch her some ideas for documentaries about disability. And sheepishly, on the way back after lunch, I said, “I’ve always wanted to see a documentary about my summer camp, to be honest with you. I think it may have had a lot to do with the birth of the disability rights movement.”

NICOLE NEWNHAM My jaw hit the floor, because I never in my life imagined a radical hippie summer camp for teens with disabilities in the ’70s. These hippies had created an egalitarian utopia, and Jim had this theory that it lit a fire that seeded people who would go on to fight for disability rights. But cinematically, the question was, “How would you immerse an audience in that experience? How would you combine ‘Wet Hot American Summer’ with ‘The Life and Times of Harvey Milk?’”

At that point, you didn’t know about the remarkable footage that was shot at the camp by the People’s Video Theater one summer, did you?
NEWNHAM No, we didn’t. We were thinking, “Can we cast disabled actors and re-enact some of what happened?” And then Jim said, “Oh, by the way, maybe I started shooting this film myself 45 years ago.”

LEBRECHT I remember this theater group coming to camp, and I remember there was a day when they strapped a camera to my wheelchair and started pushing me around. Thank God that I remembered that the group had people in their name.

NEWNHAM I hunkered down for months and started searching for that material. And when we got it, seeing it suddenly made the story feel different. It wasn’t just a romanticization — it really did happen. If we had done re-creations, it would have been from a place of nostalgia. The footage made it present tense.

Jim, what was it like watching that footage 45 years later?
LEBRECHT I remember the day we got the hard drive. There were five and a half hours of video footage on it. I was exciting and it was bittersweet. It was really like opening a time capsule and getting this view of a part of my life that had been so long ago. There was Nancy, my first girlfriend, and Shelly, the counselor I remembered. And there was a part of me that realized, I don’t want to finish making this film, because I don’t want to leave Camp Jened.

NEWNHAM By the end of the process, I felt that way too.

Jim, were you confident that you were correct when you said the camp was instrumental in the birth of the disability rights movement? 
LEBRECHT I wasn’t confident about anything I was doing. There were so many people who lived their lives in the movement, and I did keep my eyes on it, but not the way they did. I had a sense that the camp was an important moment, but not the only moment.

NEWNHAM Jim said that when we started working, and I really grabbed onto that and started using it in our fundraising. And he said, “Whoa, that was just my thought.” But we reached out and found some experts who had cited Jened and a couple of other places. And when we called (disability rights activist) Judy Heumann and asked her if it was true, and she thought it was.

It became the work of four years of working actively on the project, resaearching and finding scraps of footage and tracking down all these recollections, finding old oral histories in archives and really building that case.

What were the biggest challenges for you in making the film?
NEWNHAM I think one of the hardest things was making a film that really was a movement film, but wanting to tell it from this very intimate perspective of Jim, a first-person POV, and also have Judy as a major character — but to have a balance where it’s not Jim’s story or a Judy biopic. It took us a long time to figure out.

LEBRECHT For me, I just was not experienced in the editing room, or in a lot of the different areas, in the real nuts and bolts of filmmaking. I had to get familiar and comfortable with it. But Nicole and I have known each other for a long time, and there was a great deal of trust between us. And as we worked on the project, I really felt there were things I could bring to it, and areas where my point of view was useful.

Read more from the Documentaries issue of TheWrap Awards Season Magazine.


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