Nicole Newnham and James Lebrecht interview: ‘Crip Camp’ documentary
“Crip Camp” directors Nicole Newnham and James Lebrecht came very close to reenacting scenes from Camp Jened when Lebrecht remembered that a hippie group had visited and filmed the camp during a crabs outbreak that had happened while he was a camper there. After searching for months, “Jim remembered it was called the People’s something. Finally, I found a little ad in the back of an old videographer’s magazine from the 70s that said ‘Crabs outbreak at Camp Jenned for the Handicapped by the People’s Video Theater,'” Newnham tells Gold Derby at our Meet the Experts: Documentary panel (watch above). “They had six hours of footage that they hadn’t seen since they shot it . Jim and I combined that footage with scraps of archival footage from the disability rights movement.”
“Crip Camp,” which is currently streaming on Netflix, explores how a summer camp for disabled and handicapped children/teenagers in the Catskills helped shape the lives of the campers who attended it. The camp operated from 1951 until its closure in 1977. Many of the camp’s past attendees highlighted in the film went on to become activists who fought for equal rights and access for the handicapped. These leaders would go on to be key figures in helping to pass the Rehabilitation Act in 1973, the enforcement of non-discrimination laws in Section 504 of that act and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.
Despite the passing of landmark legislation like the ADA, Lebrecht tells us that basic enforcement of that law is still a major issue. For instance, if a complaint is filed, businesses will have six months to rectify it. “What other civil right law has a statement saying, well you’ve got six month to rectify the things? These regulations and laws have been on the books for over 30 years.” He also points out that attacks on Medicare and Medicaid are attacks on programs that “allow us to live outside of our bedrooms. People are trying to make determinations based on quality of life and the last people that should be making that determination are doctors who look upon people with disabilities often as less than and not seeing the beautiful lives that we have.”
Another highlight of the film is the chronicle of the sit-in at a government building in San Francisco and how other civil rights groups, including the Black Panthers and the gay liberation movement, helped the activists so their protest could last as long as possible. “As we delved into the research and started talking to people who crossed over those identity group, we started understanding the depth of that story,” Newnham says. Adding that element to the film gave it a superhero flavor to it that crowds went nuts for. “Before the pandemic we had a couple of opportunities to screen the film in large theaters and people were jumping to their feet and applauding as these various groups came in.”