- LOS ANGELES
Jim LeBrecht is an accomplished sound editor, designer and mixer, his talents having been deployed on assorted projects over the years, including three documentaries from director/producer Nicole Newnham, a News & Documentary Emmy Award winner. “We’ve developed a great rapport,” related Newnham who recalled their wrapping a documentary titled The Revolutionary Optimists several years back when LeBrecht invited her to lunch to talk about some ideas he had for future projects, one being about a ramshackle summer camp in upstate New York created for teenagers with disabilities.
Newnham recalled feeling during that informal lunch get-together LeBrecht’s frustration over not seeing authentic stories about the physically challenged in TV and film--as well as his concern that not enough people with disabilities were being afforded opportunities to work in the entertainment industry. LeBrecht told her of Camp Jened, run by hippies and infused with much of the counterculture free spirit embodied in nearby Woodstock. LeBrecht had been a camper there and the experience had a profoundly positive impact on him and his teen compatriots, many of whom found a greater sense of purpose and community, inspiring them to become leaders as adults in the disability rights movement.
The story, said Newnham, “upended a lot of tropes and stereotypes that I carried. We decided to try to work on this documentary together. Initially the concept was that Jim would produce and I would direct it. But it quickly became clear that Jim had the power to best tell the story from the perspective of disability. He had a unique vantage point on everything. We had to co-direct.”
Titled Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution, the documentary starts out as a nostalgic remembrance of Camp Jened, the campers, the counselors and the bonds that were formed among them. Footage taken back in the day by People's Video Theater filmmakers chronicling the camp shows us the kids having fun, meeting others with disabilities for the first time, experiencing romance, gaining self-awareness and simply growing up quite a bit during just a matter of weeks. Camp Jened--which shuttered in 1977--was in many respects an idyllic place for them, one where campers with polio, cerebral palsy and other disabilities could feel acceptance and deep camaraderie. Among the campers we are introduced to as youngsters are LeBrecht, born with spina bifida, and Judith Heumann, a polio survivor. Both went on, along with others, to play key roles in the disability rights movement, staging a history-making sit-in protest for 25 days at the San Francisco Department of Health, Education and Welfare, lobbying in Washington, D.C. and proving instrumental in paving the way for the Americans with Disabilities Act to become law in 1990.
Crip Camp sheds light on a decades-long fight for civil rights that was overshadowed by other battles for equality during that time. Greater recognition of this chapter in our history is being fostered by Crip Camp which earned the Audience Award at this year’s Sundance Film Festival and is now set to debut next week (3/25) globally on Netflix. Further reflecting the high profile attention attained by Crip Camp is its selection as the second film backed by Higher Ground Productions, the company headed by Barack and Michelle Obama. (The first Higher Ground film was American Factory, which earlier this year won the Oscar for Best Feature Documentary.)
Reaching Higher Ground
LeBrecht and Newnham credited producer Howard Gertler--an EP on Crip Camp and a Best Feature Documentary Oscar nominee for How to Survive a Plague--with bringing Higher Ground into the picture. “He thought Higher Ground would be interested in our film,” recollected LeBrecht. “He got some footage to them and that sparked the connection.”
The initial meeting LeBrecht and Newnham had was with Higher Ground’s Tonia Davis and Priya Swaminathan who saw some rough cut scenes. “We talked and got to know each other,” said Newnham who related that 15 or so minutes after their meeting adjourned, they got a call from Swaminathan that Higher Ground would commit to the film.
However, for Newnham, the conversations that were must crucial to Crip Camp--a film several years in the making--were the many hours she spent with LeBrecht, tapping into his memory, chatting informally yet delving deeply into his experiences at Camp Jened and in the disability rights movement. “I transcribed those interviews and went back to them like text, constructing scenes literally based on the truth of Jim’s experience.”
Crip Camp provides an authentic look at people with disabilities, breaking away from stereotypes often depicted in film and TV. Newnham observed simply that “disability is part of the human condition” and that having a better understanding of that community--and our shared humanity--can prove liberating, meaningful and fulfilling.
For his experience to now be resonating with a larger audience has been especially gratifying to LeBrecht in his directorial debut. “As someone with a lifelong disability, to see the response from people within the community that this is an important story that they wanted a wider audience to see--and to now realize that exposure has been amazing. To see my lunch with Nicole result in something that has been so well received fills one’s heart.”