See also: Behind the Scenes at Sundance
In 1969, the eyes of the nation focused on rural Woodstock, New York, as thousands of people from all across the country descended on a farm for what would become arguably the biggest concert of the century. Around the same time, just over an hour away in Rock Hill, New York, a bunch of disabled kids were enjoying an equally transformational moment at Camp Jened, a small summer camp.
The friendships and mutual understanding those campers developed would go on to serve as key pillars in the nascent disability rights movement, with the campers leading the way as the movement’s architects. The camp, the campers and their legacies are the subject of the documentary, Crip Camp, which was produced by Barack and Michelle Obama for Netflix, and featured at the 2020 Sundance Festival, where it won the Audience Award.
In “Crip Camp,” David Radcliff talks with the film’s co-directors, Jim LeBrecht and Nicole Newnham, about why this documentary of a long-ago counter-cultural time is the movie we need today. Then, Radcliff takes us “Behind the Scenes at Sundance,” reporting on the festival’s efforts to embrace the disability community and the work that still needs to be done.
Though it now boasts President Barack Obama as one of its executive producers, the powerful Netflix documentary Crip Camp wouldn’t have happened at all, if not for co-director Jim LeBrecht’s cherished memories of Camp Jened, a touchstone of his young adulthood.
Located just down the road from the Woodstock experience that rocked Northern New York in 1969, Jened offered disabled teens of the late 1960s and early 1970s a unique oasis of both independence and community. For LeBrecht, who grew up often feeling isolated by his spina bifida, that was a potent combination.
“Jened was the first time in my life I felt like I wasn’t a burden,” LeBrecht said. “It was a place where I could actually be one of the cool kids.”
At Jened, campers like LeBrecht weren’t defined by the constraints of their various disabilities, but by the shared power of their teenage dreams and ambitions. They cooked meals, played musical instruments, hooked up and smoked dope, all under the watch of camp counselors who essentially treated their charges as peers.
In other words, this ramshackle camp laid the perfect foundation for a revolution.
“It became an important part of the disabled civil rights movement,” LeBrecht said. “It wasn’t the start of it, as things had been percolating throughout the country. But what happened at that camp — each of us learning our lives could be better — was so motivating that a lot of us went on to get involved politically.”
That wave of political involvement would ultimately shift the United States in radical ways, helping to usher in not only enforcement of Section 504 of the 1973 Rehabilitation Act but also the landmark Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. Judy Heumann, a Jened camper and counselor who formed a close friendship with Le-Brecht in their teenage years, would go on to work for two American presidents and to become a world-renowned advisor on international disability rights.
Digging Up Memories
The spirit of Jened was a countercultural force with which to be reckoned. Even in adulthood, having secured a career as a film and theater sound designer, LeBrecht retained a powerful love for his Jened cohort. In 2015, he turned to his friend and colleague, documentarian Nicole Newnham who won an Emmy for Collisions, with an interest in channeling those formative memories into a feature-length documentary film.
“Jim sent me a Facebook page where campers and counselors from Jened had collated photographs,” Newnham said. “Just the still photographs were such eye-openers for me, because they showed kids with disabilities in a different light than I was used to seeing them in the media. I thought, if these still pictures of the camp could be that transformational, what could a film be?”
At Newnham’s suggestion, the pair agreed to serve as co-directors on what would reveal itself to be a sprawling and ambitious project. Their research required not only interviewing numerous alumni of the Jened experience but also diving deeply into a civil rights movement that isn’t typically covered in schools. Throughout it all, LeBrecht’s intuitive understanding of Jened and of life as a disabled American provided what Newnham describes as the project’s “north star.”
“It was apparent to me that what was really different and exciting about this was Jim’s personal perspective,” Newnham said, “and his being able to do for other people, through this film, what he has done for me over the years: introduce me to this community and to its experiences and even shift the way I might have [otherwise] thought about disability.”
But it wasn’t until they happened to uncover handheld documentary footage, archived by a Northern California collective known as The Peoples’ Video Theater, that Newnham and LeBrecht realized just how personal LeBrecht’s relationship to the film was likely to become.
“Somehow I had remembered this group of hippie videographers had come to camp,” LeBrecht said. One of them, Howard Gutstadt, handed LeBrecht a camera. “We had strapped it to the back of my wheelchair and we went on a camp tour.”
That specific memory, coupled with the remarkable discovery that Peoples’ Video Theater still retained a treasure trove of handheld documentary footage of 1970s Jened, expanded not only the scope of the Crip Camp project but also LeBrecht’s own sense of nostalgia.
Suddenly he found himself face-to-face with the people and the moments that had shaped his young adulthood — oftentimes filmed by teenage LeBrecht himself.
“Those videographers, and the sense of agency they gave us, was something pretty extraordinary,” LeBrecht said. “They just handed us cameras and treated us like who we were: teens and young adults, not patients.”
Armed with footage shot by the Jened campers themselves, and with a narrative arc that would take its teenage protagonists from mischievous campers to world-changing advocates, LeBrecht and Newnham were even more convinced of their unique opportunity to illuminate a complex view of disability.
“We had a sense that, hey, maybe something is really happening here,” LeBrecht said. “Maybe we can actually open up minds and change some of the narrative.”
‘Piss on Pity’
Seeking to sidestep typical problematic tropes, the filmmakers pledged to focus Crip Camp on the dynamic relationships between the campers rather than take cheap tugs at audience heartstrings.
“Jim wore a T-shirt, during the making of the film, that said ‘Piss On Pity,’” Newnham said, “and that was our ethos. These stories are all delivered in such an empowered fashion by [the interviewees], in a spirit of not being passive and of not accepting ‘no’ for an answer. That’s not pity. We really didn’t want to make inspiration porn.”
In its commitment to eschew cheap emotional ploys, Crip Camp found an ideal central figure in the sharp-witted and morally unshakable Heumann. Introduced in the film as a Jened camp counselor who draws upon her natural community-organizing instincts to plan a dinner menu, Heumann ends the film having led over 100 disabled protestors in the longest sit-in at a federal building in American history.
“It was exciting to learn from [Jim and Nicole] about the footage they were finding and to help them look for things and gather things,” Heumann said. “It was really a process of something being born or created, but in a very non-traditional way. And it’s powerful to get those real stories out there that can go pretty deep.”
As it was for LeBrecht, the process of diving back into the footage of Jened was an invigorating experience for Heumann. Though she has been written about and filmed for other projects, the life-long advocate recognizes a clear link between her coming-of-age at Jened and her current significance on the world stage.
“My camp experiences happened at times I was realizing my friends who didn’t have disabilities were able to do things I couldn’t do,” Heumann said. “[Nondisabled] friends were going out on buses or trains, or getting in and out of cars, or visiting people’s homes. So with the friends I made at camp, we were able to talk about real barriers we were experiencing. … We were really talking about our goals and aspirations, and we were talking about discrimination. These were less likely to be the kinds of conversations [other] kids would have had.”
Like Newnham and LeBrecht, Heumann is hopeful the existence of Crip Camp will elevate not only an awareness about the civil rights struggles of the past but of the day-to-day struggles, both physical and interpersonal, that continue today for members of the disabled community.
“Not knowing the story [of Jened] is one thing,” Heumann said, “but not knowing the story of your neighbor who has a disability, or not recognizing it as a denial of rights if he can’t do the same things you’re able to do — that’s different. Because this isn’t just about the lack of an accessible bus; it is about the question of why that bus is not accessible. It’s about whether [nondisabled] people are ready to acknowledge they view us in a non-equal way.”
Whatever shift in perception Crip Camp might prompt after its global Netflix release, LeBrecht says he feels bowled over by the enthusiastic response his passion project — his own coming-of-age story — has already received.
“It’s hard to put into words my feelings about that first night [at Sundance],” LeBrecht said. “The applause, how loud it was, and knowing the audience was seeing all these incredible people on stage, many of whom have obvious disabilities. It really felt like something like this had never happened before. That kind of positive reception — it really gives everything even greater weight.”
Crip Camp Reflections
An Interview with Former Jened Camper Denise Sherer Jacobson
Author Denise Sherer Jacobson is one of the campers featured in Crip Camp. She recently completed her memoir, My Camp Jened Summer: A Teenage Misfit’s Tale of Love, Heartache, and Belonging. Her first book, The Question of David: A Disabled Mother’s Journey Through Adoption, Family, and Life, documents how she and her husband, both of whom have cerebral palsy, became one of America’s first couples with significant disabilities to adopt and raise a baby. We asked her to share her thoughts on Crip Camp.
NEW MOBILITY: When did you and Jim LeBrecht, the director of Crip Camp, first talk about his documentary idea?
Denise Sherer Jacobson: That conversation began around 2011 when Jim and I bumped into each other on the street. He asked what I was up to and I told him I was working on my second book, which is about my first summer at Jened. His eyes lit up and he said he always dreamed of making a film about Jened. That’s when we started getting together from time to time to talk about what that might look like.
NM: What was it like to see your transformation from a teenager to an adult on the big screen?
DSJ: As a teen, I had so many doubts and fears about my future because of the messages I got [about disability] from family and society that painted a very grim reality. Before Jened, I was just an observer. At Jened, I became a participant! I felt very alone in my feelings until I went to Jened. Jened helped me find validation and confidence, compassion, and resolve that empowered me. I figured if I could feel valued at camp, then I could feel valued in the outside world. The film proved I was right.
NM: What do you think of how the movie turned out?
DSJ: I’m just awed. I really believe it will have a far-reaching impact beyond the obvious disability-related issues because it clues people in on how we readily dismiss and devalue “the other.”
NM: What was the response to the movie at Sundance?
DSJ: The response has been incredible! At Sundance, people came up to me in tears sharing they had never seen a film like Crip Camp. Many said that they had no knowledge that there even was a disability movement. The film is a blueprint of what inclusivity and belonging looks like.