In the early 1970s, there was a summer camp for teens with disabilities called Camp Jened, located in upstate New York. It was a run by young hippies and, according to its creator, operated as something of a social experiment: The kids with disabilities loved participating in games they would normally never get to play at home, socializing and pursuing summer romances with other campers, speaking openly about their struggles with one another, and singing and playing without being judged. Reportedly, it was the counselors who had to get over any hang-ups they had about being around those who were different.
James Lebrecht and Nicole Newnham’s astonishing Crip Camp won the audience award at this year’s Sundance Film festival and, thanks to Netflix, now has the best showcase it could possibly have hoped for. If it was only about the day-to-day events in Camp Jened, it would already be an accomplished work on a little-known and surprising occurrence. As Crip Camp plays out, we discover that this was just the beginning of a much larger story, as many of the campers had extraordinary lives afterwards, particularly as activists and social justice enforcers – in particular, Judith E. Heumann, who we first meet as an adorable, plucky, and outspoken young woman in a wheelchair at Camp Jened. The feeling of freedom and a desire to serve those around her led her to create Disabilities in Action (DIA), a civil rights organization that took on powerful politicians and pushed for wheelchair accessible building architecture.
Co-director Lebrecht is initially the focal point, an engaging subject who was born with spina bifida but, as home video footage reveals, was always an active and wily child. His time at Camp Jened gave him a newfound self confidence that affected him for the rest of his life; creating a documentary this expansive, frank, and passionate is a gift. Composed of wonderful, tell-all interviews and well preserved and startling footage, few documentaries are this accomplished, crisp (it’s only 106 minutes), and undeniably impactful.
In terms of covering a chosen topic and seeing it play out over time, I would easily put this alongside Harlan County USA and The Times of Harvey Milk. It’s that good. The wealth of high quality and revealing vintage footage is amazing. The camera never shies away from moments that are uncomfortable, as we see and hear the struggles these young men and women endured, both in their lives during camp and in their subsequent years as activists. If the scenes of the youth-run, loosely enforced camp run by hippies seems questionable at first, there’s truly horrific footage later on showing us Willowbrook State School, the infamous institution where handicapped kids were abused and left to roam an overcrowded facility. The Willowbrook footage, as horrifying as anything I’ve ever seen, is such a stark contrast to the sweet, playful, and rewarding atmosphere visible by Camp Jened. (The Willowbrook reporting is provided by a young Geraldo Rivera, whose coverage of the monstrous institution is among the most valuable work of his career.)
The third act takes us inside a sit-in and protest day-by-day, as fly-on-the-wall footage allows us to watch politicians sweat it out while men and women of varying disabilities sleep on the floor and refuse to move until the Rehabilitation Act is signed. Details of the 504 Sit-in (as it is now referred) are stunning and include how the Black Panthers got involved and the tense boardroom encounter when the unflappable, driven Heumann finally loses her cool.
I’m doing my job in describing Crip Camp but my synopsis doesn’t do it justice. The compelling stories and subjects interviewed are fully fleshed out and this is as funny and touching as it is always compelling and entertaining. Crip Camp is remarkable for the inspiring story it recreates and because it’s a potent, relevant piece of history that will empower those who witness it. This is a fantastic documentary. (On Netflix)
Rated R/106 Min.
Cult Classic Essential: The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the Eighth Dimension
Local legend DJ Blast (aka Bud Galarita) has told me many, many times that The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the Eighth Dimension is his favorite movie. He once corrected an article I wrote on the film, noting that I got the name of a race of extraterrestrials wrong(!). You know what? His fandom is valid, because the movie flat out rocks. Marvel fans take note: this is what Guardians of the Galaxy looked like in the ’80s. It’s an odd, exhilarating ride. Remember: No Matter Where You Go, There You Are. (On Amazon Prime)
Family Movie Classic: Charlotte’s Web
The delightful 1973 animated Charlotte’s Web hasn’t lost any of its charm. The 2006 live action remake has overshadowed this version, which is harder to find and a wonderful adaptation of E.B. White’s novel. (On Hulu)
Images courtesy IMDB