Nicole Newnham and Jim LeBrecht’s feature documentary “Crip Camp” starts off like any other summer camp story: Kids of different backgrounds meet up, hook up, and fall into a series of youthful hijinks. The only distinction is that the residents of Camp Jened are teens with disabilities. But what “Crip Camp” uncovers about Camp Jened is that the site would eventually sow the seeds for a disability rights movement that would have long-lasting implications decades later.
LeBrecht had always wanted to tell a story about his time at Jened, a place where he found liberation, joy, and a sense of normalcy outside of his home. So when he met up with Newnham, a director he’d worked with for 15 years doing the sound design and mixing on her documentaries, the two started brainstorming on a project they could work on together. Newnham said she’d watched LeBrecht “spend a lot of his time and energy as an advocate for better representation for people with disabilities,” especially disabled filmmakers, so when he brought up his time at Camp Jened it seemed, for LeBrecht especially, “like a golden opportunity.”
But despite their good idea, the odds remain stacked against telling disabled narratives. “The Peanut Butter Falcon,” one of the most successful independent features of recent vintage — especially starring an actor with Down Syndrome — struggled to receive funding and distribution. And while one in four people in the United States live with a disability, they only account for 2.7 percent of characters in entertainment as of 2019. Newnham and LeBrecht knew a documentary already catered to a different audience, but they still wanted “Crip Camp” to be accessible to all audiences, not strictly the disabled and they did that by relying on proven entertainment formulas.
“We talked about it as ‘The Breakfast Club’ meets ‘The Times of Harvey Milk,'” Newnham said, emphasizing that the story starts with a focus on teenagers seeking sexual exploration and other universal elements of being seen. The directing pair also combined a bevy of perspectives in the assembly process, drawing on the experiences of LeBrecht and the other members of the camp’s disabled participants with Newnham’s non-disabled outlook. To hear them explain, an audience that may not understand the nuances of disability rights can still identify with each one of these teens struggling to be understood by their parents, find love, and eventually take control of their independence.
“Jim was paying attention to, ‘How can we draw people [in] and make them feel comfortable?’ I’m talking about non-disabled people,” Newnham said. The goal remained to create empathy and make people laugh. As Camp Jened director Larry Allison explains in archival documentary footage, it is up to able-bodied people to understand the disabled perspective and it’s something Newnham connected to. “I experienced all those revelations that audience members who are not from the disability community are having.”
LeBrecht also utilized the documentary to open up about himself. “I was always given the option to pull [back] if something got uncomfortable which really enabled me to just go for it,” he said. Footage of him at age 15 presents LeBrecht frankly discussing his romantic relationships with other campers and just generally expressing the teenage feelings most kids probably wouldn’t want saved for posterity. But LeBrecht understood it was vital to “give everything I had” in order to give the film the personality it needed.
More importantly, having LeBrecht as both filmmaker and subject also brings to light an issue often ignored: He’s been vocal about the day-to-day struggles of starting his career in sound design, much of it documented in “Crip Camp,” but even more startling is hearing him discuss accessibility. Just the nature of flying to promote a film takes on added burdens with a wheelchair, which LeBrecht travels with. Before one even gets to the festival there are additional issues for disabled travelers. Outside of being unable to use the bathroom in-flight, there are also chronic fears of having one’s wheelchair lost or damaged.
When asked about navigating Sundance, known for being difficult to navigate as an able-bodied person with its inclement weather and altitude, LeBrecht said he could certainly feel their improvements but it’s tough.
“These film festivals are paying attention for their audiences, but are they paying attention to the filmmakers who come with their films or are going there to network with other filmmakers?” he said. He thinks this needs a spotlight just as much as whether a festival’s programs, internships, and fellowships are inclusive to those with disabilities.
But now that the film will be widely available to stream on Netflix both LeBrecht and Newnham hope it will put a spotlight on a multitude of issues and not be perceived as being for a niche audience.
Watching “Crip Camp” not only puts an eye on a forgotten piece of history, but seeks to open up a national conversation about the rights of the disabled. As the directors (and this author) will tell you, there’s more ground to tread with regards to putting those with disabilities on an equal level with everyone else. “Crip Camp,” though, shows that we’re all questing for the same thing, searching for that same endless summer.
“Crip Camp” premieres on Netflix March 25.