The Directors of Netflix’s Crip Camp on What the Documentary Can Teach Us Today

The new movie was supposed to debut in theaters, but the filmmakers see silver linings in the timing of its release.

A black-and-white photo of protestors, some of them in wheelchairs, rallying outside of the White House. One of the signs encourages the president to "Sign 504 now."
Courtesy Netflix

Early on in Netflix’s new documentary Crip Camp, Jim Lebrecht, the film’s co-director, reflects wistfully on the first summer he spent at Camp Jened, as a 15-year-old in 1971: “The wild thing is that this camp changed the world, and nobody knows the story.” The camp, after which the film is named, was a summer camp for disabled children where kids were encouraged to explore their identities and passions and were made to feel like valuable members of the community. Lebrecht’s film tells the story of how the community and ideology fostered at the free-love–era camp helped lay the foundation for the American disability rights movement.

The documentary was an opening-night selection at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival, where it received both an Audience Award for U.S. Documentary and a standing ovation. The film premiered on Netflix on March 25, as part of a slate of programming produced by Barack and Michelle Obama’s production company Higher Ground.

For this interview, which has been condensed and edited for clarity, I spoke with co-directors James Lebrecht and Nicole Newnham by phone to discuss their vision for the film, the extraordinary story of the disability rights movement, and the ways in which it resonates with our current moment.

Slate: What is it like to release a film during a pandemic? And how do you feel the current situation has impacted how the movie has been received?

Nicole Newnham: Well it’s certainly not what we anticipated. We were actually getting ready to go to Europe and be in a number of film festivals we were really excited about. And of course we were supposed to launch in theaters … So that’s quite disappointing.

At the same time, some have said this is the perfect time for the film to come out. This health crisis is impacting people who are vulnerable, and this film shows how a lot of that vulnerability is systemic. We want people to see that it is possible to change things and make the world a better place for everyone.  This film shows that a small committed group of people can make a huge difference. We need to ask ourselves, when this is over, how will we rebuild the society that we want to see?

We also tried to make an experience that was fun and joyous and filled with life and filled with the power of community, and I think that that’s something that people are craving right now too. So it’s bittersweet, but there’s definitely a sweet side to coming out now.

Jim Lebrecht: On the sweet side, we’ve been doing some online Q&As with audiences on Zoom, and it’s a surprisingly intimate thing. Instead of being in a large theater with people you can’t quite see and a voice coming over a microphone, you’re seeing people face to face in their own homes. And I’m just really appreciative—it feels much more like a connection with the audience.

Could you possibly speak a little bit about the title of the film?

Lebrecht: We knew using the word crip in the title was going to be a bit edgy and controversial. Even within the disability community, not everybody approved of the term. But many of us—especially some of the older guard—feel it is an important piece of slang that we’ve reclaimed. We took that slur back. And it has become, for me and other people, indicative of a certain political and cultural identity as a disabled person. For me, saying “crip” says “I’m prideful of who I am in my community and the larger role we have.”

Newnham: One of our hopes for the film, even in our initial conversations, was to make visible the disability community and the culture of this particular era. Often people with disabilities are portrayed in the media as isolated individuals up against hardship. You don’t often see depictions of people with disabilities in community together. We felt it was important that the title telegraph that this is a film made by people with disabilities and from the perspective of a particular group. It’s a story told from the inside. So giving it an insider name helped make that clear. The word has a whole political history behind it. We wanted to embrace that and carry it forward.

There’s so much wonderful archival footage in the film. Can you talk a little bit about the process of coming through it all and curating what went into the film?

Newnham: It was a multi-year process. There was a lot of sleuthing involved. Most of the early footage of the camp came from the People’s Video Theater. We tracked down Howard Gutstadt, one of the directors, and he happened to live just a few miles from us across the bridge in San Francisco. He had five and half hours of footage that they had shot at the camp that summer. So Jim and I went and met him at a restaurant in Noe Valley, and when we walked into the restaurant and he saw Jim, he started to cry. It was so profound for all of us. Just the power of the fact that they cared enough to shoot that footage all those years ago, and that they did it so beautifully and that that was opening up the possibility of Jim picking up the camera and continuing the storytelling 50 years later was pretty extraordinary.

Lebrecht: It blew my mind to see the tape. We stayed in the editing room for hours and hours … I think we watched just about all of it that first day.

Were there any moments from the footage that you loved but that you were unable to include in the final cut?

Newnham: Oh, there were many. There was an incredible swimming scene that we had to cut out for time. In the scene, Buddha, one of the campers who didn’t have the use of his legs, was racing a counselor, who did, and beat the hell out of him. The set up and his response was just brilliantly comic and really wonderful. But we were trying to a get across a very specific narrative and only had so much time.

One of the things I was most struck by is how abundantly joyful the film is. Despite the institutional adversity that the subjects are facing, the prevailing emotions behind their activism are hope and friendship and camaraderie.

Newnham: At the heart of the film is the joy of finding community. There’s really immense happiness, relief, and joy when you find community, particularly when you haven’t had it before. What I found wonderful was how the positive energy of the camp carried over into the Center for Independent Living and also into the disability advocacy efforts, you know? The sense of pride and joy, of shared purpose, of setting out to do something together. I think that is really, really important to political movements and political transformation. It was really fun to chart that through the story.

Did you have any discussions with Netflix about accessibility? I noticed they offer audio description for the movie in multiple languages and made the transcript available to download, which is unusual.

Lebrecht: Accessibility was always a priority for us and the way that the folks at Netflix embraced it was really unexpectedly fantastic. The film has captioning in 29 languages, audio description in 17, and a script for the deafblind. Haben Girma, a wonderful leader in the disabled community and an extraordinary deafblind woman, suggested that we offer an audio script. Netflix produced a script that was really quite evocative and detailed. It ended up being 116 pages long. Recently, Haben tweeted saying that for the first time in her life, she watched a film on Netflix. That’s how she phrased it.

What sorts of artistic considerations are made when thinking about creating captioning and audio descriptions for a film?

Lebrecht: There are so many things that we wanted to accomplish. With regard to subtitles, for one, the way that they appear on the screen wasn’t a utilitarian thing. We worked very closely with Netflix to get the timing just right, so we weren’t giving away the jokes or reveals. The placement [of the text] on the screen and how it appeared was something that Lauren Schwartzman, our associate producer and incredible associate editor, built.

Newnham: We wanted a subtitle treatment that would match the timing and elegance of the way that Neil and Denise and Steve speak. And we recognized that, as we were putting subtitles on, that Denise [Sherer Jacobson]’s words in particular were like poetry. So we wanted something that captured that feeling. We thought a lot about accessibility not only in post-production, but in pre-production as well. Pretty much the entire five-year process has been an advocacy effort led by Jim, who has been tireless. We’ve always had as our goal, not just getting this film made, but using this film as a ramp for many other stories and hopefully very diverse stories. Stories that represent the kind of wealth and diversity that exist in the community.

Lebrecht: It’s important to point out that Crip Camp is one story about one group of people in one time period. This is not the definitive history of disability rights, or disability justice. There are hundreds and hundreds of other stories out there about the experiences and lives of people with disabilities that are just as compelling and just as important. And we’re really hoping that more of those voices get the opportunity to be heard going forward.

In the past week, we have seen people across the country engage in peaceful forms of protest. Healthcare workers and grocery store workers are demanding the right to safe working conditions and reasonable accommodations. What wisdom does this film have to offer activists?

Newnham: Well, the cross-movement aspect of the story was just absolutely inspiring to me, the concept of working together to achieve a goal. In [the fight to pass the Americans with Disabilities Act], the disabled community was supported by many different communities. You had Black Panthers helping, you had the unions helping, you had the women’s movement helping, the gay liberation movement helping, and that’s what made it a success.

The other thing that, for me, is just a shining example from this story is the incredible power of listening. You feel that most powerfully in the scene where everyone is listening to Nancy Rosenblum [a woman at Camp Jened with cerebral palsy] talk. We wanted that to be a very visceral experience for the audience—a moment of patience and listening. Knowing that what Nancy had to say was going to have extreme value, which of course it does. Witnessing each other’s truths and saying, “I see you and I believe you,” as Corbett O’Toole says. That is an instrumental part of changing the world for everyone. So I think that those are two really important lessons I think people can take away.

Lebrecht: As Judy [Heumann] says in the film, no one’s just going to give you this stuff, you’re going to have to ask for it. And at times, as you can see, you have to demand it and do something that they can’t ignore. This was and still is a life and death struggle. I just saw online today something about politicians choosing who gets a ventilator and who doesn’t. It’s frightening. And it just reinforces what a lot of us feel: that we are disposable. We are not people who are considered valuable in society. But, of course, we can change that.