Crip Camp (2020)

Crip Camp
Director: James Lebrecht, Nicole Newnham
Writer: James Lebrecht, Nicole Newnham, David Radcliff
Seen on: 6./7.3.2023

In the 70s, Camp Jened was probably the only summer camp designed specifically for young people with disabilities. The disabilities covered a wide range, but they all came together in an exceptional spirit of solidarity, experiencing what it means to actually be in a community and not the odd one out. Out of Camp Jened grew the Disability Rights Movement, led among others by Judith Heumann. The documentary traces the developments and accomplishments that came out of Camp Jened.

Crip Camp has been on my watchlist since it came out, but with the sad news of Heumann’s passing, I finally sat down to watch it. That was an excellent decision because it really is a fantastic documentary, taking care to do the movement and its protagonist justice – and to discuss ableism in a very thorough manner. It’s an uplifting, empowering film.

The film poster showing a wheelchair user smiling. Behind him, a man is holding on to his wheelchair, a guitar over his shoulder. They are in a camp area with forest and cabins in the background.

We probably all know that movies about disabled people tend to be inspiration porn more often than not. “Look what they accomplished, despite everything else. Aren’t they brave just for existing? Shouldn’t we be humbled by their difficulties?” and yada, yada, yada. It’s a deeply dehumanizing tactic that reduces disabled people to a source of self-reflection for abled people. Crip Camp is explicitely not that kind of film.

It is about activists achieving great things, that is for sure. And they are able to do that not despite their disability but because they found a corner of the world where they were listened to, taken seriously, where they were seen as people and not burdens first. The film is rather adamant about the activism coming through the camp experiences, both on a more symbolic level (because camp attendants got a taste of what life could be like when they’re accepted) and on an absolutely practical one (the sit-in and protesting was only possible because camp taught them to take care of each other and everybody’s needs).

A group of disabled young women standing and sitting together.

At the same time, the film makes it clear that we are talking about structural issues. It’s not just about empowering individuals, it’s about changing how the world deals with disability, how it accomodates people and what structures are in place to achieve that. I loved how it touches on how the fight for disability rights is part of the fight for civil rights in general. And that it shows that there is also a hierarchy of disabilities in people’s minds that needs to be dismantled, too.

While it does all that, the film also practices what it preaches by breaking quite a few movie taboos, like having extended interviews with people whose speech is affected by their disability, or having the disabled people in the film talk openly about their sexual experiences. It’s a revolutionary bit of cinema, fit for a revolutionary topic.

A young Judith Heumann giving a speech.

Summarizing: watch it, definitely.

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