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‘Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution’ a documentary triumph

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Documentary filmmaking is at its most effective when it finds a way to both educate and entertain. Bringing real people and places to the big screen in service to a message is important, but the reality is that if an audience isn’t engaged – isn’t entertained – that message may well go unheard, no matter how important it is or how skillfully relayed.

It has been a long time since I saw a documentary that so successfully struck that balance as “Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution.” Currently streaming on Netflix, the film – directed by James LeBrecht and Nicole Newnham – tells the story of a summer camp for the disabled back in the early 1970s and the huge impact some of those campers would ultimately have in the decades-long fight for civil rights for the disabled.

It’s no surprise that the film is good – it was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance and actually won the Audience Award – but I wasn’t prepared for HOW good it was going to be. This is a razor sharp, poignant and wickedly funny film, one that delves deep into a part of our nation’s history that is likely unfamiliar to many. It has as colorful a cast of characters as you could hope to find, as well as a message of struggle and speaking truth to power that resonates just as fully today as it did when the story it tells unfolded.

Camp Jened was a summer camp devoted to the disabled that operated in the Catskills from the 1950s to the late 1970s. Founded by a self-described hippie named Larry Allison, the camp was intended to give those dealing with various physical and intellectual disabilities an opportunity to experience summer camp alongside their peers. It was a legendary place in the disabled community, but it would ultimately turn out to be so much more than a few individually lifechanging summers.

From the film’s early moments in 1971, we follow a handful of the campers and counselors through their time not just at Camp Jened, but in the years afterward. You see, some of the youngsters from that early summer would go on to become major players in the fight for the civil rights of the disabled, including the leadership of a group whose sit-in protest at the San Francisco headquarters of the Department of Health, Economics and Welfare in the late ‘70s would serve as the catalyst for the series of events that would ultimately lead to the inception of the Americans with Disabilities Act, finally signed into law in 1990.

Along the way, we spend time with a handful of the campers who would help change the world. Co-director LeBrecht was a 15-year-old camper at Camp Jened in 1971; an off-hand remark about his memories of the camp was what led to the making of this film. We spend some time with him, learning about his experience. We also meet Judith Heumann, who was 22 and a counselor at Camp Jened in 1971 before going on to become one of the most vocal and impactful disability advocates in the country. Assorted other campers and advocates make the scene as well.

The film’s first half focuses on the time at Camp Jened, built on an impressive collection of archival footage. A filmmaking collective called the People’s Video Theater spent a good chunk of the summer of 1971 at the camp, recording the day-to-day activities of the campers while also conducting a vast number of interviews and rap sessions. It is in these moments that we’re offered a glimpse into what it was like to be one of these kids, someone dealing with the idea of being viewed as “less than” by the world around them … and a sense that some of them were willing to do whatever it might take to change that world.

The rest of the film focuses on the activism in the disabled community in the 1970s and onward; specifically, the vibrant and combative crew that gradually assembled in the Berkeley area during that time. It was here that Heumann made her mark, leading the charge in more ways than one. It was through the tireless work of Heumann and her allies – from calling for enforcement of existing rules to demanding the implementation of fairer ones – that the disabled were able to finally feel seen.

“Crip Camp” is an absolutely exquisite piece of documentary filmmaking. The narrative is compelling as hell, laden with both tragedy and triumph. It is a small but significant part of our country’s history – one that is probably largely unknown to today’s viewers. The people involved are dynamic, passionate and funny, both in the archival footage and in the present day.

And let’s talk about that archival footage, shall we? The images of 1971 Camp Jened are as mesmerizing and as moving as anything you’ve seen on a screen in years. There’s a buoyant glee to these campers, a joie de vivre that is contagious and absolutely beautiful. Set that against the back half, packed with footage from news cameras and other more formal sources. Put it together with some charismatic current day interviews and you’ve got documentary magic.

“Crip Camp” is a reminder that the rights many of us take for granted were hard-won by others. It is matter-of-fact in its portrayal of the revolution it documents – and make no mistake, these people were revolutionaries to the core. It is thoughtful and thought-provoking, unafraid to be angry or combative even as it charms and shines a light on a historical chapter that has unfairly receded into the footnotes.

Sweet, smart and starkly honest, “Crip Camp” is not just the best documentary of 2020 – it might be the best film, full stop. See this movie.

[5 out of 5]

Last modified on Monday, 30 March 2020 10:22

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