Directed by: James Lebrecht and Nicole Newnham
Premise: A documentary about Camp Jened, a summer camp for physically disabled young people. The film follows several of the young people who attended the camp in the early 1970s and went on to become activists in the fight for the rights of people with disabilities.
What Works: Hollywood films and the culture at large tend to portray people with disabilities as pitiable creatures or as tools for non-disabled people to demonstrate their virtue. Crip Camp is unique in that it requires the audience to see the humanity of these people. The filmmakers primarily accomplish that by framing the stories from the point of view of the disabled people who are profiled. Whenever possible, we hear about the struggles and accomplishments of these people from those directly involved. Their story is about community. Although the disabled make up about twenty-six percent of the United States’ population—bigger than any other minority group—their lives can often be isolated. As documented here, Camp Jened allowed young people with disabilities to meet others with similar conditions. That encounter with community gave the campers a sense of solidarity with one another that carried on in the subsequent years through their activism. Crip Camp also makes us see the humanity of these people through some of the personal and unglamorous details of their lives. There’s a lot of talk about camp romances as well as references to sex among the disabled. This isn’t about shock value. Sexuality is an essential part of the human experience and these details are included in the film precisely because they contravene the asexual idealization of the disabled. Much of Crip Camp is about the fight for passage of federal laws to ensure the rights of the disabled, namely the 504 Sit In of 1977, in which protesters demanded the full enactment of the Rehabilitation Act. This aspect of the movie expands our understanding of recent history. Crip Camp posits the fight for the rights of the disabled alongside other civil rights movements of that era including rights for women, people of color, and the LGBTQ community. This film does an excellent job expanding that narrative and placing people with disabilities in that history.
What Doesn’t: Camp Jened only figures into the opening of Crip Camp. It’s really just a gathering place for the people whose stories are followed throughout the rest of the film. Crip Camp leaves unexplained just how novel Camp Jened was at the time or if it was at all. Some background and context of the camp itself might have added to our understanding to how unique this place was and how special an opportunity it provided to the campers.
DVD extras: Currently available on Netflix.
Bottom Line: Crip Camp is an admirable documentary about recent history and the experiences of people with disabilities. This is a feel-good picture but it is also honest about the challenges faced by people with disabilities and it makes the audience reconsider how we’ve thought about them.
Episode: #819 (September 27, 2020)