CRIP CAMP: Beautiful History Lesson On Disability Rights Movement

After their big victory at the Oscars for American Factory, the Obamas’ Higher Ground Productions follows up with another winning documentary. Crip Camp is a beautiful, wonderfully entertaining and insightful history lesson on civil rights for the disabled in America.

Down the road from Woodstock…

When a 600-acre dairy farm in Bethel, New York was roaring with the sound of Richie Havens singing Freedom, down the road there was a summer camp, Camp Jened, for teens with disabilities to enjoy themselves in a space that would normally only be afforded to their able-bodied peers. Jened was ahead of its time in providing such an accessible abode – the Disability Act wouldn’t even pass for another twenty years yet. For many of the camp’s residents, it was the first time they got to hang out with so many other disabled individuals.

CRIP CAMP: Beautiful History Lesson On Disability Rights Movement
source: Netflix

Jim LeBrecht, this film’s co-director, and his friend Ann Cupolo Freeman were two such campers, not entirely knowing that their communal fun would soon transmogrify into a revolutionary movement. The film is soundly structured, utilising talking heads to access the memories of living subjects who provide insight into the camp’s pleasures compared to their life at home, explaining the striking differences of the freedom they got at Jened versus being at the mercy of what able-bodied family members thought was best. The most enchanting of the great contributors are Denise and Neil Jacobson, a couple who both have CP. 

The Jacobsons speak about their time at the camp, how they enjoyed such a freedom and made connections for life, and I haven’t heard such a unique perspective and unfiltered insight into their world (particularly listening to Denise speak about a doctors misconceptions of her sex life) since the subjects of Kazuo Hara’s Goodbye CP.

The original filmmakers

In addition to the wonderful testimonies of the handicapped adults who relished their time at Jened, this amazing deep-dive wouldn’t be complete without discussion around other important figures including camp director Larry Allison, who’s pretty much the embodiment of the typical hippie counselor that ran the place, and Howard Gutstadt of the People’s Video Theater, whose team shot all the old footage that we see.

CRIP CAMP: Beautiful History Lesson On Disability Rights Movement
source: Netflix

At the risk of being an exploitative cameraman, Gutstadt’s sensitive directive to the subjects of Jened was simply, “Whatever you wanna say about yourselves, let us know.” It’s amazing how much archive there is as a result of the synthesis between the camp and cameras and I wonder if there were other documentaries being made back then by Gustadt’s team. There are so many little films within films here of the culture and characters at the camp.

Lebrecht and co-director Nicole Newnham, who previously tread similar territory by documenting cultural change agents in The Revolutionary Optimists, brilliantly assemble the film from a mountain of rich footage to create a complete, coherent and creative portrait that spotlights how the provision of such an environment, one that nourishes a community, particularly one marginalised in society, has the capacity for tremendous self-actualisation that can make the world better for all.

Crip Camp: Conclusion

Crip Camp is such a great story that begins at a camp, where we see young disabled people living and loving life, and breaks out into a revolution, initiating the Disability in Action movement founded by leading disability activist and former Jened counsellor Judy Heumann, one of the many contributors featured in this film.

The movement fought for a more inclusive society, seeking better access on public transport and protesting against the Vietnam War amongst other progressive action. This is a truly inspiring film about the great potential in a community banding together for change. More importantly, though, it’s a vital film that completely dispels the notion of how having a disability means you can’t enjoy life to the same extent as anyone without one.

What are the best documentaries about people with disabilities? Let us know in the comments below.

Crip Camp will be released globally on Netflix on March 25th 2020.

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