Crip Camp

 

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A film for which we have been waiting a long time.

 
Crip Camp

 

Now that Crip Camp has appeared, the most important thing for any critic to say lies outside any detailed analysis as to the quality of the filmmaking. Instead what matters is to thank the film's creators, James LeBrecht and Nicole Newnham who share both the writing and directing credits, for treating a human rights issue that has until now been virtually ignored on screen. Over the years many films have been made about the fight for equality of Afro-Americans and similarly the issue of rights for LGBTQ+ individuals has been well documented, but only now do we have this feature documentary focussed on the comparable struggle of those in America who are disabled. Crip Camp may be the film's actual title, but far more apt is the subtitle for it provided by Netflix, A Disability Revolution, and most viewers will be more eager to celebrate the film's existence than to debate details about how well it has been assembled.

 

Crip Camp is the second feature from Higher Ground Productions, the company set up by Barack and Michelle Obama. Initially it looks to be centred on Camp Jened which was located in the Catskills in New York State and which was founded in 1951. LeBrecht himself had been born with spina bifida and went to the camp as a teenager in 1971 and the film finds him at the outset describing his time there. This leads into much archive footage and from this we learn of the decidedly hippie nature of the camp at that time (it doesn't seem entirely coincidental that Woodstock was just down the road). This material includes comments from counsellors (many disabled themselves) and from campers and it brings out clearly the extent to which youngsters whose disabilities ranged from polio to cerebral palsy gained from the sense of being in like company and away from parents who tended to be over-protective. In addition, whilst at the camp they escaped the pressures of a society that often put them in institutions and made them feel inferior - as one person puts it when you were in Camp Jened there was no outside world.

 

After showing this material from the past interspersed with present-day scenes in which not only LeBrecht    but also several others look back on this period in their lives, the film moves on to events between 1972 and 1990.  A key figure now is Judith Heumann, herself a veteran of Camp Jened, who would become a leading activist and she is the person who emerges as the most memorable and inspiring person seen in Crip Camp. In 1972 she became an important figure in an American coalition group, Citizens with Disabilities, which grew in numbers after Nixon vetoed section 504 of the 1073 Rehabilitation Act which had promised much to help the disabled. She also became involved in the Center for Independent Living in Berkeley. Continuing delays in bringing in legislation would lead to a major protest, a climax to all that had gone before when premises in San Francisco were occupied as a challenge to U.S. Health Secretary Joseph Califano and lasted for all of three weeks.

 

By allowing the courage and extermination of these activists to emerge naturally from these events the film arouses admiration for them whereas a lesser work might have tried to build up sympathy in a consciously sentimental way. That makes Crip Camp all the more welcome, but the fact that it comes from Higher Ground Productions does prompt comparisons with its predecessor, the Oscar-winning American Factory. That film seemed to me to be far more astutely shaped than this one which feels very much like a film in two parts. One feels that in spite of frequent references to the fact that of those who went to Camp Jened many subsequently became activists. At the film's close we are shown a return to the site of the camp which closed in 1977 but this suggests a bid by the filmmakers to make the film seem more of a piece than it really is. Furthermore, the big protest of 1977 is dealt with in such a way that it plays as the climax of the movie and consequently leaves one unprepared for various small bits and pieces that follow covering the 1980s and the major breakthrough in 1990 when equal access was achieved (the film's release does indeed mark the 30th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act of that year being passed).

 

These may seem minor points but they result in Crip Camp lacking the sense of shape and structure which would have prepared the viewer for where it was leading. In addition, some scenes feel arbitrary rather than being so placed and developed as to build the narrative (this applies early on to parts of the footage from 1971 and equally to the closing statements offered in no particular order about some of those seen in the film who have since died). Given that director James LeBrecht is seen at the outset introducing the film, his opening remarks could easily have included more information outlining what the film would cover and how it would fit together. I mention these various shortcomings because if corrected they would have given the film a tighter and more compelling narrative sense. That has affected my rating for the film, but I readily acknowledge that what really matters about Crip Camp is that the film evidences an historical movement in America which deserves to be better known and which is undoubtedly of significant human importance.

  

MANSEL STIMPSON

 

Featuring  James LeBrecht, Judith Heumann, HolLynn D'lil, Lionel Je'Woodyard, Denise Shearer Jacobson, Neil Jacobson, Evan White, Larry Allison, Dennis Billups, Joe O'Conor, Ed Roberts, Corbett O'Toole.

 

Dir James LeBrecht and Nicole Newnham, Pro James LeBrecht, Nicole Newnham and Sara Bolder, Screenplay James LeBrecht and Nicole Newnham, Ph Vincente Franco, Justin Schein, Tom Kaufman and others, Ed Andrew Gersh, Eileen Meyer and Mary Lampson, Music Bear McCreary.

 

Higher Ground Productions-Netflix.
107 mins. USA. 2020. Rel: 25 March 2020. Available on Netflix. Cert. 12A.