How 'Crip Camp' Immerses Us in a Movement

We interview filmmakers Nicole Newnham and James Lebrecht about the making of their new Netflix documentary.

CRIP CAMP: A Disability Revolution
Netflix

In the early 1970s, a summer camp for kids with disabilities became the launching pad for a new civil rights movement, which eventually led to the passing of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. The story of how that happened is now chronicled in the Netflix documentary Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution.

One of the film’s directors, James Lebrecht, attended the camp and went on to a career in sound for theatre and movies. He’s worked on many Hollywood productions as well as a number of documentaries, including Minding the Gap, We Were Here, The Devil and Daniel Johnston, and The Rape of Europa. This is his directorial debut.

Nicole Newnham, who co-directed The Rape of Europa, was the other filmmaker at the helm of Crip Camp. She’s an Emmy winner for producing the short film Collisions and was previously a double nominee for The Rape of Europa and was also nominated for co-directing the features The Revolutionary Optimists and Sentenced Home, both via Independent Lens.

Together, Lebrecht and Newnham have crafted an experience of the disability rights movement in the U.S. with their new documentary by compiling a remarkable collection of footage that immerses us in the history. Crip Camp features some interviewees sharing their memories of the places and events in the story, but the doc shows more than it tells.

Almost half of the footage comes from a single video source recorded at Camp Jened almost 50 years ago. The rest of the film maintains the visual storytelling, though, in a way that feels like a miracle but is really the result of a lot of hard work locating and digging through the coverage that existed. It’s another great example of historical or archival verite cinema.

I recently talked with the two directors by phone about the making of Crip Camp, settling on just how personal a film it would be, due to “Jim” Lebrecht’s involvement, and the materials available that allowed for such a direct sense of the times and the people who went from bunking together to changing the world together. Below is a transcription of our discussion.

Nonfics: I’m surprised this story has never been told before. Why now?

James Lebrecht: There have been other films that have chronicled the 504 Sit-in. There was that documentary on PBS about 10 years ago called Lives Worth Living. But I think that the difference here is that we have such a broad audience with Netflix and having the interest of the Obamas taking us under their wing with their Higher Ground production company. That’s giving this a huge lift in terms of visibility. Also, Nicole and I, fortunately, had time and resources to really dig deeper into the story and find a lot of things that had never been unearthed since the day.

Nicole Newnham: Also I think it’s just a very different project. For one thing, I think it’s the first time in any sort of major feature documentary that the story has been told from the inside out, from the perspective of a filmmaker with a disability. And in this kind of personal way. Then you have this sort of ruckus revolutionary hippie summer camp angle, which pulls people in, and it’s certainly unique.

But I think the reason it hasn’t happened to date, that this story has kind of broken through to people’s cultural awareness in a broad way, is because of discrimination. A big part of the discrimination that people with disabilities face is due to the fact that there is such reciprocity of representation of stories and voices of people with disabilities, and they tend to fall into tiresome tropes like inspiration porn and tragedy.

Even though the history existed, people didn’t see it as something that they could hold as a part of their own history or something that could be celebrated and joyous and fun in the way that Jim saw it and communicated it to me. In other words, if it was a very serious historical documentary, I think people would think, well, that was a really nice movement that disabled people led for themselves. But we tried to say, no, this was a revolution that actually changed everyone’s lives and really puts disability culture and disability activism and resourcefulness out there as something that everyone can learn from and relate to and want to be a part of.

Nonfics: Jim, you’re not only the co-director chronicling this history, but you’re also part of the story. How did that work, and how does that feel?

James Lebrecht: I originally had pitched this idea to Nicole asking, “Are you interested in directing this story?” And she was the one who really said, “I think we should direct this together.” So, for me, it was a kind of remarkable experience. I had been doing sound for documentaries for 25 years, but I had never been through the nuts and bolts of really making the film and being in the editing room and setting up the shoots and doing the research and everything.

I felt like I was in graduate school this whole time because of Nicole’s incredible experience. We both found a way to really pull from each other’s strengths or experiences. Truly this was a collaboration of feeding to people’s strengths and listening and trusting each other that can happen — doesn’t always happen, but can happen — with a really great collaboration. One example is just how we developed the narration, really going over writing some ideas and starting to record it but then stopping and really just honing exactly the meanings of things.

Nonfics: Was there a discussion about how to include Jim as a character without making the film more of a first-person documentary?

Nicole Newnham: We found our way to it over the course of a really incredible editing process with the top — some of my favorite editors working in documentary today, people I just have enormous respect for. We had a really amazing collaborative edit room, I would say. We tried to bring the ethos of Camp Jened into the edit room. Which was important because it was delicate, personal, emotional work for Jim and also for a lot of the other people featured in the film. The stories we were holding so carefully and preciously while we were working.

With a lot of documentaries, you’re working with points of tension that you’re identifying, and for us, one of those things that we were trying to get right was that balance of it being a personal story where Jim is sort of a Virgil character guiding you into the history and then kind of accompanying you along the journey of it, but not having it be a personal film.

In early cuts of the film, whenever we veered too far over into the personal territory, there started to be tension between that and the extent to which the history, and the evolution of the history, played out across time for all the characters. It is a film about a social revolution. And about a collective, the power of collective space, be it at the camp or the CIL [Center for Independent Living] building in Berkeley or inside the 504 Sit-in. Pulling it too far in the direction of a personal narrative started to bump up against that feeling of collectivity we wanted to carry people through the history.

Nonfics: I want to talk about all the footage in the first part of the movie shot at the camp. What was it originally used for, if anything? And how did you locate it?

James Lebrecht: The People’s Video Theater, who shot that, the only thing that we could tell that they had done with it was a short documentary that wound up on Manhattan cable television called The Crabs Epidemic at Camp Jened for the Handicapped in Hunter, New York. And we within the community had a VHS copy of that documentary, but as far as we knew, that was really the only thing that had been done with that footage. Trying to track down those people took a lot of heavy-duty sleuthing. I had remembered that they had given me a camera for a tour of the camp, but I could only remember that the name of the group had the word “people” in it. And Nicole set about to really find these folks.

Nicole Newnham: Jim remembered, “Okay, well it was this radical video group, and I think they have ‘people’ in their name.” I was like, “What, you think they shot more than just the crabs epidemic? You think you shot a tour of the camp yourself?” And Jim didn’t really remember what else they had shot or didn’t have any idea how long they had been there or how much footage there might be.

But it was so compelling because I had already got sucked into the idea of wanting to make the film with Jim, and we were trying to think about how can we move this beyond just people’s sentimental recollections of summer camp? We didn’t want it to be like a Big Chill type of romantic reminiscences of summer kind of film. We wanted it to be radical and crazy and infused with the spirit of the time. We didn’t want it to be overly steeped in nostalgia. Even though that’s a nice element of the film, we didn’t want the whole film to be that way. The still pictures we had were pretty extraordinary, and they had a lot of that spirit, and we were questioning would we need to do some recreations, and what would that look like. We weren’t really sure how we were going to pull it together.

So, at night, I would just look online and eventually I found a little ad for that Crabs tape in the back of a video magazine that someone had digitized and put in an archive. That led us to know that it was the People’s Video Theater, which led us to Howard Gutstadt, one of the members of that coalition, who lived across the bay from us in San Francisco and was midway transferring all the footage of the Bay Area Video Coalition through an NEA grant. Which was incredibly good fortune because that footage had been in 17 basements all around the country and traveling around with one of the other members of the People’s Video Theater. But they hadn’t even looked at it. They didn’t know what was on it.

We get this hard drive delivered to the office, and Jim and I just sat there for like five hours watching it all, and about two and a half hours in I looked at Jim and said, “Oh my god, do you feel like you could just watch this for eighth hours? I feel like I could just watch it and watch it and watch it.” Obviously, for Jim, he was finding people whom he knew and loved in the footage and it was very emotional. But for me, too, it had this incredible power and immediacy that partially comes from the fact that it’s early video and people weren’t used to portable video equipment. There’s this sort of innocence or naiveness with which people interact with the camera, especially people in that community not being used to that kind of equipment.

Anyway, Jim and I felt very strongly that the film needed to kind of land at the camp and do a lot of the work of shifting mindsets around disability through the kind of experiential, immersive language of cinema verite. That was why it was so great to have the editors on board construct it so you’re not really aware of all the crafting that’s going into these moments encouraging you to confront some of your own bias and giving you key pieces of information. In this way, you hopefully feel like you’ve been to Camp Jened with a lot of the campers through the end of the first 40 minutes of the film. Then that shifted mindset takes you out into the history.

James Lebrecht: One fair thing you could say is that you’ve never seen footage like this in your life.

Nonfics: True. Although that all that footage was available, and even with all the material in the second half, I was reminded of How to Survive a Plague (which like Crip Camp was also produced by Howard Gertler) as far as this being a movement so well-documented that it could be presented with such a visually rich documentary.

Nicole Newnham: One of the most exciting things for us is that, as Jim said, we have all these resources that were enabling us to spend time and hire incredible researchers to go in and track all that stuff, which had really been forgotten. A lot of times we were dealing with boxes of things that libraries had had for maybe 20 years in their collections but hadn’t even bothered to catalog. It took a lot of effort to get these little scraps of footage that we were using to piece together the second part of the film.

What we would find is our own characters in the footage. For instance, Nancy Rosenblum is the woman at the message to parents table who is sort of speaking and then Steve Hofmann translates for her at the end of the camp experience. We didn’t know exactly what her life turned out to be like when she got to Berkeley. We learned that she had passed away, and we weren’t able to speak to her. One day, we got this tape that somebody told us about that was made by the CBC about the independent living movement, and all of a sudden there’s Nancy Rosenblum. She’s in her two-bedroom apartment with her personal attendant that NCIL [National Council on Independent Living] helped her find, and she’s asking for candy and ice cream. We all just sat there and cried because we were literally learning through the archival research how the stories of our characters intertwined with the movement and the history. As we were receiving the material.

That piece of Judy [Heumann] saying that she was tired of feeling thankful for accessible toilets, that came at the very end. We were past fine cut when that piece of footage finally arrived, and it completely helped us solve a narrative problem, which was how do we pivot from the victory of the 504 to the continued struggle. So it was kind of magical that way that we could start to slowly color in that narrative.

Nonfics: Jim, I read a quote that you “had an idea” that Camp Jened was a catalyst for the disabled rights movement. Was that just a hypothesis? And if so, was it proven to be true with the film or is that still just something you’re out to claim with the film?

James Lebrecht: Clearly it proved itself out to be an important arc in the disabled civil rights and the independent living movements. When we started we did not really have a strong sense of it. But very early on, Nicole and I contacted Judy and asked her, “Do you think there’s a direct link here between the camp and the movement?” And she said, “Absolutely.” When you look at this footage, especially the earlier footage from New York and the photographs from the Madison Avenue protest, you see a number of people from Camp Jened there involved. That inkling definitely got proven.

For more of my interview with James Lebrecht and Nicole Newnham, check out my article on the significance of the title of Crip Camp here

(Editor in Chief)

Christopher Campbell is the founding editor of Nonfics.