Imagine if The Thin Blue Line was simply named “Murder of a Dallas Police Officer.” Or Surviving the Plague was called “A History of the AIDS Epidemic.” Formal, expository titles are fitting for some documentaries, but they can be a rigid turnoff for others. Anyway, a perfectly brief title can still say a lot about the film you’re about to watch.
“In eight letters, you get the sense with the title what it’s going to be,” says James Lebrecht about the Netflix documentary Crip Camp, which he co-directed with Nicole Newnham. The film chronicles the history of the disability rights movement from its beginnings at an Upstate New York summer camp “for the handicapped” in the early 1970s.
Lebrecht, who also appears on screen as one of the subjects of the documentary, believes the title sets viewers up for something edgy and provocative. “The title does a lot of heavy lifting to immediately frame that this is a look at disability from the inside and it’s unlike anything else that you may have seen before.”
Indeed, Crip Camp offers a uniquely honest look at the lives of persons with a disability, and that’s due to it arising from a place of personal interest. “You can imagine growing up as I did with a lifelong disability and watching movies and television and not seeing what I know to be a much fuller and more accurate portrayal of people with disabilities,” Lebrecht says. “It was really kind of frustrating.”
With Crip Camp, he wants to show that the disabled community is just like any other. “We have our humor, we have our slang, we have our incredible artists,” he explains. “And if you’re being told that anybody with a disability their life is full of pain and loneliness and anguish, that’s incredibly harmful. And it’s not the freaking truth. Our lives are only held back by society’s stigma or lack of willingness to really fully embrace people with disabilities when it comes to inclusion or diversity.”
Crip Camp is not an uplifting story of hardships overcome, nor is it a pitiable portrait of impairment, but avoiding those directions was an obstacle for the filmmakers. “There are these tropes of tragedy and inspiration that are so ubiquitous,” Newnham explains of the usual media depictions, “and they pretty much take up all the real estate in our culture around stories of people with disabilities. Although that’s starting to shift.”
The need to stay clear of these tropes was to keep the audience on track with its intended tone. “People’s brains are so attuned to that,” Newnham says of the cliches. “They can really quickly fall into one of those ruts. A lot of what we were doing in the editing was just this really painstaking stuff to avoid people ever going down that road.”
That meant cutting a lot of favorite moments that were, unfortunately, giving viewers those undesired default feelings. “The audience was starting to go down this ‘oh, that’s so sweet and inspirational’ route or the ‘oh my god, it’s so tragic’ or ‘heroic how they’ve overcome’ kind of route,” Newnham confesses. “We had to constantly pull back to where people weren’t ever really allowed to do that because they were being surprised by something or they were laughing at something or going in some other direction.”
For some, the film’s title may seem offensive, but “crip” has been a reappropriated term for the disabled community for a long time, though it’s not universally approved. “Not everybody embraces or likes that word,” Lebrecht admits. “But we felt pretty strongly that it would be a way to help really reclaim a word for us and really show folks that there was this culture, and it shows an attitude that goes well beyond your typical kind of film that you would see.”
The directors floated the title by others, including Denise Sherer Jacobson, who is featured in the film and also served as a writing consultant. “Denise said, ‘You can call it that because that’s our word, our term,’ and I think that’s why we chose it: because it was an inside term and it telegraphed certain things about the film, that it’s funny and irreverent,” Newnham explains. “And most of all that it was a story from the inside out, from an insider perspective.”
A doc by any other name would not have smelled so salty. A simple descriptive title might not give the right impression. Lebrecht remembers, “I mentioned to somebody a few years ago in front of a fireplace in a hotel at Sundance that I was working on this documentary about this summer camp I went to, and they said, ‘Oh, that’s nice.’ And I was like, ‘No, you don’t understand. I went there because I had heard you could smoke dope with the counselors.”
Crip Camp, as its name should suggest, is the sort of documentary that isn’t just playing nice, and yet that’s just about as respectful as you can get.
For more with James Lebrecht and Nicole Newnham, check out my interview focused on the making of Crip Camp here.