Jim LeBrecht: 'Camp Jened and the people I had met there had been such a wonderful part of my life'

credit: Sacha Maric

Crip Camp co-director discusses how a civil rights movement was ignited by a 1970s summer camp for teenagers with disabilities

With Crip Camp, directors Nicole Newnham and Jim LeBrecht have documented a rousing civil rights movement that was ignited by a revolutionary 1970s summer camp for teenagers with disabilities, based in the Catskills. Executive produced by Barack and Michelle Obama's company Higher Ground, this compelling and joyful documentary boasts a unique insider perspective from LeBrecht, who attended the camp. The film premiered at Sundance Film Festival in January, winning an audience award, and its release coincides with the 30th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

'I've been frustrated with the representation or misrepresentation of disabled people in media for virtually all my life,' explains LeBrecht, also a film mixer who has worked with Newnham previously. 'That there was a place in the documentary space to do something ground-breaking became a frustration for me over the last eight to ten years. Thank goodness Nicole and I had lunch and talked about this!'

'At that lunch Jim was hinting that I should direct and he should co-produce a film about disability,' says Newnham. 'We had some ideas, but it was a throwaway line about his summer camp that really piqued my interest. Just his description, about the wild hippy times and smoking dope with the camp leaders, really dashed a lot of stereotypes that I realised, hearing about it, I was carrying around.'

credit: Steve Honisgbaum

Black and white verité footage from Camp Jened is spliced together with interviews from former campers and counsellors as they take a nostalgic trip down memory lane. It beautifully captures the freedom and spirit of the camp, which was just up the road from Woodstock. The second half of the film charts the rise of the movement with archive news footage, to join the dots between the discussions the campers had about feelings of isolation, their quality of life and career ambitions, and how that fed into their future activism.

The footage came from the People's Video Theatre, and was filmed by a radical collective. For LeBrecht, it was an emotional experience to watch it, 'It was like opening a package on Christmas and your birthday all on the same day! Camp Jened and the people I had met there had been such a wonderful part of my life. All I had were memories, but here I could actually see the camp again. It wasn't too hard to locate the people who were in the film … the hardest thing was that Larry Allison [the camp director] had passed away shortly after we started working on the film.'

Interviews with Judy Heumann (who along with Kitty Cone organised the San Francisco 504 occupation) reveal a tireless campaigner whose efforts, past and present, enacted real change for the disability community. I suggest that's it's only a matter of time before the activist, who also attended Camp Jened, gets the dramatic biopic treatment. It's a sentiment which Newnham and LeBrecht endorse. 'I've never met anyone as powerful and extraordinary as Judy,' says Newnham. 'When you feel the full force of Judy you realise that she is one of the great civil rights figures of our time, and her story is one of the great civil rights stories of our time. She saw a direct link between those early conversations between young people who gathered at Camp Jened and realised they could create a better world for themselves, with what happened later.'

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