If “Crip Camp” strikes you as a politically incorrect name for a movie about a summer camp where kids on crutches, in wheelchairs, and otherwise living with disabilities found it possible to feel included rather than ostracized, consider this: The irreverent, stereotype-busting documentary was co-directed by Berkeley-based sound designer Jim LeBrecht, a spina bifida survivor who attended Camp Jened (as the institution was really called) in the early ’70s, and who sees the place as a source of empowerment for a generation who went on to lead the disabled rights crusade in the decades to follow.
As the first competition entry to screen at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival — and the second to be supported by Barack and Michelle Obama’s Higher Ground production deal with Netflix — this raucous doc is bound to get attention, and also makes a nice complement to “American Factory” in showing the range of projects the Obamas deem worthy of sharing with a wider audience. Co-helmed by Nicole Newnham (“The Revolutionary Optimists”), then broadening the scope to include the more closed-minded outside world to which the campers returned — an intimidating obstacle course they collectively helped to reinvent.
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The movie is made possible by a wealth of archival (mostly black-and-white) footage, recorded between 1971-73 by the People’s Video Theater, which gave Camp Jened attendees an opportunity to share their experience. At first, the kids just make faces at the camera, but in time, they open up about the various ways they feel misunderstood. As in Arthur Bradford’s 1999 documentary “How’s Your News?” (picture the cast of “Give Me Liberty” as an amateur news crew), laughter is an essential part of the equation.
It may be startling for those who haven’t spent time with people with cerebral palsy or polio to see how a paraplegic gets from his wheelchair into the pool, or to watch a game of catch between kids with limited motor control. On closer inspection, it becomes clear that these teenagers (some of whom had been locked away in institutions or segregated into “special” classes) are having the time of their lives.
Instead of shying away from their hormonal shenanigans, the film acknowledges them as sexual beings. LeBrecht recalls flirting with “a lot of cute girls,” while Denise Sherer Jacobson, a paraplegic who got a master’s in human sexuality, dispels the idea that people with the condition are sentenced to celibacy (she explains how a case of VD was misdiagnosed as appendicitis by an ableist doctor). At one point, there’s so much fraternizing between campers that everyone has to be treated for crabs.
The movie enlivens these memories with vintage rock tracks (such as Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth” and Richie Havens’ “Freedom”), lending period flair to footage that wouldn’t feel nearly as rebellious otherwise. For all its long-haired nonconformism, Camp Jened was hardly a hotbed of antiestablishment activity — if anything, it was an oasis from an insensitive world — and yet, it helps that the filmmakers infuse those scenes with a spirit of radicalism, seeing as how several of the teens went on to challenge Washington, D.C., in its treatment of their community. Camp Jened was the place where scores of kids with disabilities discovered that they weren’t alone, and certainly weren’t worthless. What started at Camp Jened changed the world, the film suggests, proceeding to make the case in its more earnest second half.
Shortly after LeBrecht’s life-altering summer, Congress passed the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, granting equal access to people with disabilities; Section 504 of the act was designed to protect them from discrimination — in theory. The statute paved the way for the Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990, but as the 17-year gap between the two pieces of legislation demonstrates, the federal government was awfully slow to enforce Section 504. And that’s where “Crip Camp” proves to be the most educational for those born into a post-ADA world, a world of self-opening doors and accessible bathroom stalls and ramps that take wheelchairs into consideration.
The younger generation takes these advancements for granted, in the same way that future Americans will someday look back on an all-female field of Oscar best director nominees and wonder what all the fuss was about. “Crip Camp” starts with the fun but shifts to the fuss, focusing on former counselor Judy Heumann and her fellow activists, a handful of whom had attended Camp Jened. In April 1977, Heumann (who was later appointed special advisor for international disability rights at the U.S. State Department by Obama) and her cohorts stormed the offices of Joseph Maldonado, the Health, Education, and Welfare Department bureaucrat who was holding up Section 504, and staged a sit-in.
This is American history, but it’s not taught in schools, and unless one remembers Heumann’s efforts from the news, it probably won’t be familiar. When democracy overlooks the rights and interests of a minority, those concerned have to get disruptive. There’s a special power in watching a march by people on crutches and in wheelchairs, where the protesters have to pull themselves up the Capitol steps. In the end, “Crip Camp” isn’t about disability so much as the incredible ability this community showed, overcoming physical barriers and personal discomfort in order to be taken seriously. But that doesn’t mean the movie has to be 100% serious, and LeBrecht and company recognize that a little irreverence makes the journey that much more universal.