Letters from Camp
Crip Camp co-directors Jim LeBrecht and Nicole Newnham explain how a New York summer camp launched a movement and their movie.
Opening Photos By
Joyce Levy, Denise Sherer Jacobson, and Patti Smolian
When Jim LeBrecht was 15 years old, he had a transformative experience at summer camp. The year was 1971, and for people who used a wheelchair, like him, finding adequate public accommodation was rare and achieving true visibility was difficult. Although he was affable and outgoing, Jim often felt like an outsider at his high school. At Camp Jened, located a few hours outside of New York City, he found camaraderie and empowerment.Jened played a similar role for an entire generation of its campers, all of whom were disabled. Many of them would go on to become a united political force working to end disability discrimination. Their stories are told for the first time in the acclaimed documentary Crip Camp, which LeBrecht co-directed with Nicole Newnham. (The pair previously worked together on projects including the 2006 documentary The Rape of Europa, which Newnham co-directed and LeBrecht sound-mixed.)
Photo by Sacha Maric
Executive-produced by President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama through their production company, Higher Ground, Crip Camp features candid footage from Jened’s heyday, then jumps ahead to track its subjects’ evolution into young activists. Since the documentary’s world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2020, where it took home the Audience Award for U.S. Documentary, it has become a cultural flash point in a way neither filmmaker anticipated.“I remember reading a response from somebody who said, ‘I feel knowable now,’” LeBrecht relates. “It hit me in the gut that somebody would feel that way, that our film would be something that made their life feel better.”LeBrecht and Newnham recently spoke to Crip Camp’s international impact campaign advisor, renowned writer and disability advocate Sinéad Burke, about the documentary and how one summer camp changed the course of civil rights history.
Photo by Joyce Levy
Sinéad Burke: The two of you have been friends for such a long time and have worked on many projects together. But as co-directors on Crip Camp, your relationship was different. Did you have to make space for one another in a way that was different from how you had worked previously?
Jim LeBrecht: Although we’ve known each other for so long, with Crip Camp we were in each other’s lives daily. I got to know Nicole and her husband, Tom, and her two wonderful boys, Finn and Blaine. For me, that’s important. You can approach things like this as a job, but not when you are trying to make a film with a lot of heart. We had to find and forge this collaboration as business associates, as partners, and as friends. Underlying all of this was a real trust, and that is the solid bedrock of what happened on our film.
Photo by Joyce Levy
Crip Camp charts the evolution of the disability justice movement in the U.S., but it is deeply entrenched in Jim’s own story. Jim, looking back at that summer, what made you want to be an observer and a participant in such a historic moment?
JL: All of that black-and-white footage from ’71 was a result of this wonderful group called the People’s Video Theater coming to Camp Jened. They showed up and wanted to use this new portable video technology as a tool for marginalized communities. They said, “Would you like to make a film about your camp?”
Photo by Denise Sherer Jacobson
Did you feel empowered by that process, or observed?
JL: Oh, totally empowered. Here’s the thing — I realized this when I was watching the footage with Nicole. One of the first things I remember saying was that these folks could have come in and gone to the camp director and said, “How are you taking care of these poor handicapped children?” They didn’t do that. They gave us agency. They treated us like any other group of teenagers and young adults. And that just didn’t really happen in our lives.
Photo by HolLynn D’Lil
Jim, when camp ended that year and you returned to your community, did you have any sense that you had changed? Or did life just continue?
JL: I had the perspective of a 15-year-old boy. I thought it was cool that I got to do this. I have to say that it was an amazing experience, but there were so many other things at that camp that added to my enrichment, that added to my sense of self and learning how to be prideful. The overall experience there was what enriched me, but when I went back home, I played baseball in my wheelchair, I was waiting to see my friends on the block. It’s only through years of looking back, and especially working on our film, that I can see how critical those summers I spent at that camp were. They absolutely made my life what it is today.
Photo by HolLynn D’Lil
I love the idea that what is now such a revolutionary moment was kind of ordinary when you were 15. You didn’t know in that moment that the footage you had just recorded would go on to be a Netflix Original film produced by Barack and Michelle Obama. It only makes it, I suppose, even more special. But as you began to work on the film together, did you imagine what its success would look like?
NN: I don’t think we could have imagined this level of profile and platform. The Obamas coming on board, we did not imagine that. We did have our sights set very high, though. We saw that there was this amazing movement that was exciting and fun and cinematic and hadn’t gotten its due in the film world. It had been explored as a serious documentary subject, but not as a full, entertaining, cinematic experience — not as this universal Breakfast Club or Wet Hot American Summer coming-of-age story.
Photo by Sacha Maric
What impact would you like Crip Camp to continue to have?
JL: There’s an amazing thing that seems to be happening this year that I know that we’re a part of, which is shedding a light on the fact that stories around disability don’t have to fall into the old tropes. They don’t have to be tragic or inspiration porn. Crip Camp shows the full rainbow of experiences that one has living with a disability. That’s personally what I’m hopeful for in the future. When you have filmmakers with disabilities telling the stories and doing it well, you realize that obviously that’s the way to do it. This is what we know from every other marginalized community, right? We need people from the community as directors, as producers, as casting agents. I’m not saying that allies aren’t important; they truly are. But what are we all after in this world? Authenticity. We want something that feels real and dramatic and new and exciting and sexy and funny and compelling.
Watch Crip Camp
on Netflix now.