Editor’s Note: This is the first of five reviews of this year’s Academy Award nominees for best feature-length documentary, all of which are available for streaming. The reviews, specially commissioned by the Sun from former New Mexico-based movie reviewer Michael Young, will all be published before the 93rd Academy Awards ceremony on April 25. Young will write a sixth column for the Sun, sharing his judgment about which documary should win. At the end of each review, Young provides information about the streaming platform(s) on which the documentary can be viewed. Welcome, Michael!
The butterfly effect, in chaos theory, suggests that minor changes in initial conditions can have dramatic effects later as causal changes ripple through time. The term was used to suggest that even the random flutter of butterfly wings in Africa could change the path or strength of a later hurricane as it barreled towards the Caribbean.
“Crip Camp” is a moving example of how the principle works in the social realm.The documentary traces the impact of a seemingly simple summer camp experience on several disabled campers, who later become national leaders in the movement for equal rights for the handicapped. New York Times critic Ben Kenigsberg wrote that the film “makes the case that a Catskills summer camp for the disabled fostered a sense of community and creativity that fed directly into the American disability rights movement in the 1970s.” The strength of the movie is in how it manages to draw such strong lines between the teenage summer camp experience, and dramatic, nationwide political change.
The documentary is the product of multiple collaborators. The Obamas’ Higher Ground production company bought the film at the Sundance festival, and their backing brings it obvious credibility. James LeBrecht, co-writer and co-director with Nicole Newnham, attended Camp Jened, in the Catskills of New York, as a teenager in the 1960s. The summer camp had been founded in 1951 by a group of parents of disabled children who were trying to find a retreat for their kids where they could feel free to play a game of baseball without being afraid of the response of others.
LeBrecht had spina bifida and is permanently confined to a wheelchair. Partly as a result of his experiences at the camp, he became interested in audio engineering, earned a college degree and moved to Southern California to work in the film industry. (He has worked in the sound department of several movies). After reuniting with one of his fellow campers, after several decades, he got the idea of creating a film about his experience at the camp, secured partners, and the result is an Oscar-nominated movie.
This film, like so many of today’s good documentaries, adopts a perspective I like to call “the really long view.” LeBrecht was able to uncover home movie-style footage of Crip Camp that was more than five decades old. The grainy and choppy, hand-held cinematography does not detract from the experience, but instead adds to the realism—this could easily be the summer camp that we went to when we were teens of the sixties.
LeBrecht could easily have built the entire movie around the found footage. But he didn’t stop with this windfall. Instead, he traced the steps of several of the campers through the next several decades.
Many Camp Jened attendees, finding strength in the community and freedom they had enjoyed there, end up becoming leaders in the movement for equal rights for the disabled during the seventies, eighties and nineties. LeBrecht uses footage from newsreels as well as personal recordings to document hearings before Congress and administration officials. There is extended coverage of 1977’s 504 Demonstrations in San Francisco where, despite unusual problems like managing catheters and sleeping in wheelchairs, disabled people mounted a three-week sit-in at government offices trying to secure enforcement of a law mandating disabled access to services of any agency or organization getting federal money. The sit-in succeeded when Health Education and Welfare Secretary Joseph A. Califano Jr. finally signed the regulation several years after it was originally mandated.
During the Reagan era in the eighties, budget constraints largely forced recognition of rights for the disabled into the background, but, thanks to the efforts of several Crip Camp graduates (among many other activists), the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 was signed by George H. W. Bush and became the law of the land. It prohibited discrimination against the disabled.
The movie ends with some of the campers’ returning to Camp Jened just a few years ago. The camp had closed in 1977, and the buildings were all gone, and the site was being converted to another use. Still, even after several decades away from her experiences there, one camper was so moved she exclaimed: “I almost want to get out of my wheelchair and kiss the fucking ground.”
Taking the “long view” of an issue requires an immense amount of patience on the part of a documentary filmmaker and the enviable skill to weave a particular narrative thread out of the hundreds of hours of potential footage. Last year’s documentary nominees included films like “For Sama” and “American Factory,” both of which tracked events over three or four years. In “Edge of Democracy,” we get a telling of the Brazil’s history over a decade or so based on remarkable access to the inner workings of government in that troubled country.
“Crip Camp” is unique among recent documentaries in chronicling the lives of people over such an extended timeframe. In many ways, the movie reminded me of Michael Apted’s “Up” series of feature films. To maintain a consistent message over such a length of time, using such a varied combination of cinematic resources, is a remarkable accomplishment. It testifies to the passionate commitment of LeBrecht to his message and his love for his camp friends.
In the end, this movie is about hope and compassion. We see how people, sharing so much in common, learn that they are neither invisible nor powerless. We see them grow from adolescents sitting around the table, discussing typical teenage issues like freedom, recognition, sex, even the right to be alone. Seen through eyes of these unusually vulnerable kids, the issues seem much more profound.
And then, over the course of the next two decades, collapsed into an hour in the film, we see how these young people courageously take what they’ve learned and transform themselves into major players on the American scene with a commitment and enthusiasm that most of us would be hard-pressed to emulate. And then, at the end of the movie, everything comes back full circle to the place where their journeys started—radically different and yet so suffused with good memories.
Disabled people face incredible difficulties. But, as this film shows, they sometimes experience the world with an intimacy and a potency that most of us can only wish for. And, as this movie so beautifully demonstrates, the flutter of a butterfly’s wings can ripple and grow through time into a powerful storm.
The first of this year’s five nominated documentaries sets the bar extremely high. Looking forward to viewing the rest. 4 stars
“Crip Camp” is available on Netflix streaming with a subscription and free on the Netflix YouTube channel