When I saw Crip Camp was playing at Sundance I thought there’s no way that’s what it’s about. Handicapped people would not refer to themselves as crips, short for crippled. But that’s exactly what it’s about. Jimmy from South Park would be proud.
Camp Jened was a summer camp for handicapped youths in the Catskills in the ‘70s. Director Jimmy Lebrecht went there as a kid and decided to make a movie about it, with co-director Nicole Newnham. Fortunately, the People’s Video Theater had filmed his entire summer there so there was a wealth of archival footage.
It’s easy to empathize with how people with disabilities can be ostracized even today, let alone 49 years ago. They weren’t allowed to join Cub Scouts, but Camp Jened was a place where people accepted each other and had a good time. Everyone had different, unique needs and Jened made it work for all of them. The focus was always socializing and having a good time, which is what most summer campers take for granted.
When a blind and deaf man asks people to call him so he can talk to someone, it’s heartbreaking yet I realized feeling sorry for him was the wrong reaction. That man wasn’t asking for pity. He was just inviting strangers to reach out to him and he would be happy to talk to anyone. I hope people called him and that both grew from the conversations.
The campers are funny and self-deprecating. It’s probably a basic coping mechanism, make people laugh before they laugh at you, but it serves anybody to have a sense of humor regardless of physical condition. There are summer romances in 1971 and one marriage.
The first half of Crip Camp is like being invited to a special home movie. Then summer ends and the campers have to go back to their regular lives. Then they get political. A lot of the Camp Jened campers became active in Section 504, prohibiting discrimination of the disabled, and the Americans with Disabilities Act.
What these activists sacrificed for their cause is harrowing and inspiring. It’s hard for anyone to hold a sit in for days, weeks, months. Imagine sitting in with a disability, being a quadriplegic with no spare ventilator on hand. One accident could turn that protest into a very different issue. Some of them went on hunger strike!
But the footage that got me the most was disabled people climbing the steps of the Capital to fight for the ADA. I’ve been politically active especially since 2016, and increasingly more so last year in my fight against AB5 in California. I never had to pull myself up the steps of the Capital to be heard. That’s activism for you right there.
Lebrecht interviewed many of his former campers today so they get to share memories and elaborate on some of the footage. Sadly, not everybody in the Jened footage lived long enough for Lebrecht to interview them. It’s emotional, but empowering that the living and those who passed on live on in this documentary. Crip Camp left Franchise Fred thinking: did People’s Video Theater shoot enough footage for a sequel?