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The Screen Scene: Crip Camp

The Screen Scene with Scott Phillips

What a difference a couple of weeks can make.  Since the last episode of The Screen Scene, the world of motion pictures has been turned upside down by the coronavirus.  Movie theaters in New York and Los Angeles are closed. Major releases like Mulan, No Time to Die and the new Fast and Furious film are delayed indefinitely. 

There are no new feature films being released from major Hollywood studios until at least April 10th, and additional cancellations are expected.  Even the Cannes Film Festival, one of the most influential gatherings in the film industry, will probably be cancelled.  

Thankfully, before the world of entertainment began crumbling before our eyes, I attended the True/False Film Festival in Columbia, Missouri.  It’s the largest documentary film festival in the country with over 46,000 seats sold for the 2020 festival. 

I saw some truly amazing films this year at True/False.  One of them is a Netflix production called Crip Camp.  Fortunately, for those of you practicing “social distancing” and spending more time at home than usual, Crip Camp will be hitting the streaming service on March 25th

In the early 1970’s, Camp Jened in the Catskills was a ramshackle camp for handicapped teenagers.  Many of the campers weren’t allowed to attend public schools during the year.  They might have sound minds, but no school system was prepared to deal with their physical limitations. 

It was often assumed that the children with profound physical disabilities were also mentally disabled.  Many children who were strong in academics found themselves in Special Education classes with classmates whose intellectual powers were far below their own. 

The campers spent their lives isolated from other kids like them and were often institutionalized because their families couldn’t manage their care.  Each summer they left the limitations placed on them by society and congregated for a summer of fun and fellowship in the mountains of southeastern New York State.

This premise alone makes for a compelling documentary, but Crip Camp takes its audience well beyond the confines of Camp Jened.  This group of campers from the early 1970’s went on to become political activists and policy makers who would change the face of America for individuals with disabilities.  They would lobby Congress for reforms, stage sit-ins at state offices and lead rallies across America.

Some of the best documentaries are born from simple coincidence.  In the early 1970’s, a film crew embedded itself at Camp Jened to interview the campers.  They simply wanted to document a day in the life of a disabled child at a camp populated with other disabled children.  Instead, they inadvertently documented the birth of a political movement that culminated nearly twenty years later with the passage of the Americans With Disabilities Act in 1990.

Thanks to this happenstance, we see Judith Heumann as a wheelchair-bound teenager discussing her aspirations for her future.  Little did she, or the team filming her, know that she would grow up to be one of the most influential lobbyists and activists for the disabled this country has ever seen. 

We also see the film’s director Jim Lebrecht who suffers from spina bifida as he pursues a girlfriend and lives the life of a normal teenager for a few blissful weeks each year. 

Crip Camp is an extraordinary look at a segment of society whose national campaign for civil rights largely flew under the radar.  The film clips from the 70s document intelligent young people who all know that if the world doesn’t change, their hopes and dreams will never be realized. 

They will never be given the chance to contribute to society because they can’t enter buildings, can’t climb stairs, and can’t use conventional telephones.  It’s heartbreaking to hear them talk about the lives they will never have, and it’s inspiring to see them refuse to accept a life that’s constrained by limitations.

Crip Camp isn’t revolutionary in its narrative form.  It doesn’t push the documentary into new cinematic territory.  It doesn’t aspire to be that kind of film.  It’s a standard blend of “talking head” interviews and archival footage but the subject matter is so compelling, and the cast of real-life characters is so interesting, you won’t be able to take your eyes off of the film. 

It’s an old school documentary, but it’s executed with such skill that I won’t be surprised if Crip Camp is an Oscar nominee in 2021.

Crip Camp hits Netflix on March 25th.  I give it four out of five popcorn buckets.

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