Not Overcoming. Becoming
A Feature-Length Documentary by James LeBrecht & Nicole Newnham
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, just down the road from Woodstock, a parallel revolution blossomed in a ramshackle summer camp for disabled teenagers. Through reminiscence, rare archival video, and poetic hybrid footage captured through collaboration with disabled actors, Crip Camp explores the universal and emotional experience of a summer camp awakening that would forever change the lives of the camp community and shape the disability rights movement.
At the time, disabled teenagers faced a future shaped by isolation, discrimination and institutionalization. But Camp Jened, a revolutionary summer camp ‘for the handicapped’, exploded those confines. Camp director Larry Allison held a vision of a community free of condescension – where campers were defined by their individuality, not their disability. In this environment, teenagers were able to experience the fullness of themselves as human beings, in the freewheeling and open culture of the moment.
The community formed at Camp Jened pushed boundaries, transformed lives, and seeded a unique group of young adults who went forward inspired to live independent lives and contribute to the disability rights movement. Across the arc of the last forty-five years, some had wildly successful lives in politics, business and family. Other lives were rather typical, or even tragic. But all agree that the camp – what happened there, what was envisioned there, and what was developed there – is fundamental to their identify today.
We believe that this story is an important one to tell and that we are the right team to tell it. First of all, it’s my (Jim’s) story, too. I spent 4 summers at Jened and I credit this experience as one of the most foundational of my life. Jened introduced me to a world I never knew and eventually led me to the disability rights movement. I became a member of Disabled In Action, one of the earliest organizations working towards a better life for all people with disabilities. When I entered college, I founded the Disabled Student’s Union. I went on to become a successful sound designer for theater and film, working on many of the seminal documentary films that have been made in the last two decades.
Now I’m ready to make my own documentary. I believe that filmmakers with disabilities should tell our own stories, exposing audiences to our history through the eyes of the people who lived it. A longtime collaborator, Nicole is the perfect partner on this project – much of her past work illuminates deeper themes in history through intimate human stories.
Crip Camp is a new way to look at disability and we intend to create something that is unlike any documentary about disability that has preceded it — with humor, sex, drugs, rock and roll and from the universal, tender perspective of adolescence. Our scaffolding for the film is a treasure-trove of never-before-seen footage we’ve recently discovered. The black and white video, shot at the camp by pioneering video activists in 1971, contains surprising, moving, funny, and illuminating scenes and shows me and other campers whose stories we will feature in the film. We will also incorporate beautiful black and white photos taken across several years by talented Jened counselors, archive of the times, personal interviews, footage of campers in their lives today, and hybrid footage to recreate the campers-eye-view of the era.
Crip Camp will include lives that bent towards success – like Jim’s, and Judy Heumann, who went on to be a major disability rights activist and now is Special Advisor for Disability Rights at the State Department. Also included will be those whose lives ended in tragedy – like Jan, whose life was a struggle, ending in a drug deal gone bad. Interwoven through those stories will be the counselors and staff whose lives were also transformed by this experience – like Lionel Woodyard, one of a group of young African Americans from the deep south, whose life was profoundly shaped by the camp experience. Until Camp Jened, Lionel had never had a positive experience with a white person. At Jened he, too, experienced a life that had previously been unimaginable.
A Greek chorus of campers and staff will recreate the enigmatic character of Larry Allison (who passed away in in 2014). In many ways this is a story of one man with the audacity to envision a camp where everyone would be treated as a human being – and whose radical vision changed lives for generations to come.
We expect the film will raise profound questions about themes that are largely unexamined in mainstream discourse, including changing attitudes toward institutionalization for people with disabilities, disability & sexuality, the intersection between the civil rights, women’s and the disability rights movements, and the complicated issue of discrimination within the disability community.
Crip Camp is not inspiration porn (when people with disabilities are viewed as inspirational solely on the basis of their disability.) This is a film that aims to take viewers deep inside a revolutionary era and on a wild trip: a ride from oppression to empowerment, from infantilization to freedom, a ride of sexual awakening – the trip of a lifetime.
ABOUT THE FILMMAKERS:
James LeBrecht, Producer & Director: has over 35 years of experience as a film and theater sound designer and mixer, author, producer and disability rights activist. Jim is the founder of Berkeley Sound Artists (BSA), an audio postproduction house. Credits include The Waiting Room, The Devil and Daniel Johnston, Daughter From Danang, Have You Heard From Johannesburg, We Were Here, Bang: the Bert Berns Story, and Audrie and Daisy. Jim’s list of film credits (over 145) can be viewed at http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0495898/. Jim started his career in the theater, working as the resident sound designer at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre for 10 years. His sound designs for theater have also been heard at the American Conservatory Theatre in San Francisco, The Public Theater in NY and the La Jolla Playhouse and the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego. Jim co-authored (with Deena Kaye) the book Sound and Music for the Theatre: the art and technique of design. Now in it’s 4th edition, the book is used as a textbook in universities all over the world.
Nicole Newnham, Producer & Director: has been a documentary filmmaker for over twenty years. Most recently she produced the virtual reality documentary Collisions, directed by Lynette Wallworth, which premiered at the World Economic Forum and at Sundance in January 2016. Collisions, was recently nominated for a Cine Golden Eagle. Nicole co-directed & produced the Emmy-nominated documentary The Revolutionary Optimists, which inspired her to develop Map Your World (www.mapyourworld.org). Map Your World is an online community and storytelling platform for young changemakers that enables youth to leverage mobile technology to map data about issues they care about as the centerpiece of a campaign for change in their communities. Previously, Nicole co-directed and produced The Rape of Europa, about the fate of Europe’s art treasures during WWII. The Rape of Europa enjoyed a successful theatrical release, has been a much-broadcast PBS primetime special, was nominated for two national Emmys and a WGA award, and was shortlisted for the 2008 Documentary Oscar. Nicole was also nominated for an Emmy for directing and co-producing the documentary Sentenced Home, broadcast on the PBS series Independent Lens, which follows three Cambodian refugees in Seattle who are deported back to Cambodia after 9/11.