by co-directors Nicole Newnham & Jim LeBrecht
Crip Camp is about the emotional experience of having one’s perspective on the world utterly shifted, and the propulsive power of realizing that a better life is possible. Jim’s summer camp “for the handicapped,” Camp Jened, caused that shift in him and in all of the campers and counselors who were part of the social experiment that was this ramshackle hippy-run summer camp in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Jened was an environment where people with disabilities were treated as equal members of a community, and experienced for the first time the fullness of themselves as human beings.
The liberating power of that perspective shift—an awakening of understanding that the problem was not them, the problem was an unjust world—became an energetic stone thrown in a pond. The ripple effects would change the trajectory of the campers’ lives, the lives of other people with disabilities, the non-disabled, the United States, and eventually the world.
Decades after Camp Jened closed its doors due to financial difficulties, the memory of it remained a key touchstone—like an internal utopia—in the heart and mind of Jim, who had joined the exodus of “Jenedians” to Berkeley, CA and became a sound designer for theater and documentary films. During a storied career, Jim mixed scores of documentary films and saw story after story cross his path.
We began talking with Jim’s camp friends, consulting disability scholars, and diving into archives to investigate the connections between Camp Jened and the movement history. Our first phone call was to the legendary Judy Heumann—Jim’s camp counselor at Jened. Judy paused when we asked her if she felt, like Jim, that the Jened experience had been a catalyst for the movement. Judy said Jened was critical—a place where late night discussions in the bunk led to revelations of common experiences of oppression.
As the presence and influence of Jenedians in the disability rights movement over time became even clearer, it presented a new opportunity: the chance to tell some critical parts of the movement story, including the dramatic 26-day takeover of a federal building in 1977 that forced the implementation of the first disability civil rights legislation. We began to see that Crip Camp could do something similar: help Americans to hold in their hearts a long-overlooked and ignored story—that should be one of the jewels in the crown of the story we tell ourselves about the power of our democracy, and of the ability of protest and organizing to make a difference.
Making Crip Camp has been a unique collaboration: between man and a woman, disabled and non-disabled, a first-time director and a veteran filmmaker. Our respective perspectives pushed on each other, and produced a fuller human narrative. As an established director, Nicole took the lead on architecting the story, but Jim’s experience and perspective was a true North, the truth we needed to be told. Jim’s narration and offbeat personal memories were an invaluable emotional guide for the viewer.
We feel that the result is a unique experience where the story is told from the inside out. It’s a story that many disabled people want the world to know. The film tells the truth by dropping you for forty minutes of largely verite camp footage—into a world that is unfamiliar to many, taking you on a wild, unexpected ride, and bringing you out into a new world of your own changed perspective. That new lens—that of characters you feel have become your friends—is the one through which you watch the history that unfolds post camp.