A version of this story about “Crip Camp” first appeared in the documentary edition of TheWrap’s Oscar magazine.
One of the documentaries that opened the 2020 Sundance Film Festival, “Crip Camp,” deals with Camp Jened, a summer camp for disabled youth in New York state that has inspired many key figures in the disability rights movement. It is a collaboration between the documentary filmmaker Nicole Newnham (“The Rape of Europe”) and Jim LeBrecht, a sound mixer who visited the camp himself.
How did the idea for this film come about?
JIM LEBRECHT I’ve been mixing documentaries for about 25 years and Nicole was one of the people I worked with. We had amazing times and became friends, and when Nicole was finishing her last film, I took her over for lunch to come up with some ideas for documentaries about disabilities. On the way back after lunch, I said, embarrassed, “I’ve always wanted to see a documentary about my summer camp, to be honest. I think it may have a lot to do with the birth of the disability rights movement. “
NICOLE NEWNHAM My jaw dropped because I had never imagined a radical hippie summer camp for teenagers with disabilities in my life in the 70s. These hippies had created an egalitarian utopia, and Jim had the theory that they started a fire that sparked people who would keep fighting for the rights of people with disabilities. But cinematic the question was, “How would you immerse an audience in this experience? How would you combine ‘Wet Hot American Summer’ with ‘The Life and Times of Harvey Milk’? “
At that point, you didn’t know about the remarkable footage captured by the People’s Video Theater one summer at camp, did you?
NEWNHAM No we have not. We thought, “Can we cast disabled actors and re-enact some of what happened?” And then Jim said, “Oh, by the way, maybe I started making this film myself 45 years ago.”
LIVELY I remember this drama company coming to camp, and I remember there was one day they tied a camera to my wheelchair and pushed me around. Thank god I remembered the group had people on their behalf.
NEWNHAM I crouched down for months and started looking for this material. And when we got it, the story suddenly felt different from how we saw it. It wasn’t just romanticization – it really happened. If we had made replicas, it would have come from a place of nostalgia. The footage made it present tense.
Jim, what was it like to see the footage 45 years later?
LIVELY I remember the day we got the hard drive. There were five and a half hours of video on it. I was exciting and it was bittersweet. It really was like opening a time capsule and looking at a part of my life that was so long ago. There was Nancy, my first friend, and Shelly, the counselor I remembered. And part of me realized that I didn’t want to finish this movie because I didn’t want to leave Camp Jened.
NEWNHAM At the end of the process, that’s how I felt.
Jim, were you confident that you were right when you said the camp was instrumental in creating the disability rights movement?
LIVELY I wasn’t sure about anything I was doing. There were so many people who lived their lives in motion, and I kept my eyes on it, but not the way they did. I felt the camp was an important moment, but not the only one.
NEWNHAM Jim said that when we started working, and I really picked up on that and started using it for our fundraiser. And he said, “Whoa, that was just my thought.” But we tried hard and found some experts who had cited Jened and a few other places. And when we called Judy Heumann and asked her if it was true, she thought.
It became the work of four years of actively working on the project, re-researching and finding footage and tracking down all these memories, finding old oral stories in archives and really building this case.
What were the greatest challenges for you while shooting the film?
NEWNHAM I think one of the hardest things was making a movie that was really a motion picture, but I wanted to tell it from this very intimate perspective of Jim, a first person POV, and also have Judy as the main character – but one have balance where it’s not Jim’s story or a Judy biopic. It took us a long time to find out.
LIVELY For me, I just wasn’t familiar with the real basics of filmmaking in the editing room or in many different areas. I had to get used to it. But Nicole and I have known each other for a long time and there was a lot of trust between us. And when we were working on the project, I really felt that there are things that I can make and areas where my point of view is useful.
Read more from the documentary edition of TheWrap Awards Season Magazine.