The following questions and answers are excerpted from a conversation that followed the NBR screening of Crip Camp.
How did you decide that co-directing this film was the best approach?
James Lebrecht: I’ve had the good fortune to have worked with Nicole on three of her films in the past, and we became friends over the years. I just loved her work! And over the last few years, as I’ve been mixing documentaries, I hadn’t quite seen films focused on disability that I really thought told the true inside story. And Nicole and I had lunch one day as she was wrapping up The Revolutionary Optimists, and talking about what she was going to do next, and I had a bunch of films having to do with disability that I thought might be of interest to her. Almost offhandedly, as we were going back to the building after lunch, I told her that what I had always really wanted to do was to make a doc about the summer camp I went to.
Nicole Newnham: That kind of made me roll my eyes a tiny bit! Even though I absolutely loved the idea of working with Jim on something. I had become really compelled by sort of watching along as Jim was fighting for better representation in our industry for people with disabilities… and just access in general. For example, I’d come in to mix and he’d be finishing up an email to somebody to argue that he should have access to the area where filmmakers congregate at a festival or something like that. And that was really eye-opening to me: Why should there be “separate but equal” treatment for people with disabilities in our industry? Especially as it relates to documentary, which are so often focused on telling stories of social justice and about marginalized communities. Any way, I thought, “I’m sure Jim went to a summer camp that’s very special to him!” But not everyone’s special summer camp deserves to be a film unto itself. But as Jim started telling me about it, two things started happening to me. First of all, the way he told the story of this joyous, riotous kind of hippie-utopia filled with these kids with disabilities who were fully in the mode of the early ’70’s was painting an image in my mind that I did not have, at all, of people with disabilities. Which is really exciting, because with film, you can really shift the way people think. And then Jim also said that he had a theory that the camp itself had something to do with the equal rights movement that came later for people with disabilities. And that was really intriguing to me. And then he followed it up by sending me a facebook page where campers and counselors over the years had been collecting pictures from the camp… and that was just incredible. I literally looked at the pictures and thought, “if it’s not a film, it’s a photo exhibit, it’s something, it’s something so amazing and so special.” But then as I thought about it, you know, Jim had suggested I direct it. And that he co-produce it or something. I thought what’s really special is that here you have someone who is poised to make a documentary himself, who has this long and storied career in the film industry, and whose story this is. And so I got really excited about co-directing with Jim and telling the story from his personal perspective and went back and pitched that to him.
Crip Camp is a sort of love letter to the disabled community
There is one archival scene involving a roundtable discussion amongst the campers that is really exceptional. Nicole, can you you discuss that scene for us?
NN: That particular scene, when we saw it, I remember we had a conversation… we said we should build this entire act up to that moment. Because that’s such a profound moment. It shows you that the campers have formed a community, and that it’s a community of trust and love. The patience with which they listen to Nancy Rosenblum speaking, and the sort of profound moment when Steve Hofmann [one of the other campers] with cerebral palsy translates for her… it seemed like a really powerful apex moment for that act. The scene is like a journey that the audience member goes on themselves— the viewer has to sit in that position of not understanding what she’s trying to say, and feeling a little uncomfortable, and feeling bad about themselves that they feel impatient… but then really wanting to know what she says, and then noticing that everybody else is being patient, and then finally understanding! And the joy you feel when you do understand her, that’s a whole growth experience that we, the audience, get to go on along with the folks who were there at the time. When we initially showed that footage to some folks, and asked them how it made them feel, some people were skeptical that an audience would ever want to see that. That people would always feel too uncomfortable to sit through that entire scene. So we just made that our goal, to bring people along such that they would be compelled by that scene, and they would understand the profundity of it by the end. It actually wasn’t that easy, even though the camp footage was so amazing. It required so much incredible scaffolding and work in the edit room to create something that made you feel as though you had entered that world, made friends, kind of gotten to understand the language people were speaking… and then be along for the ride during that particular scene.
Jim, can you share some final thoughts? What was it like working with Higher Ground Productions, the company founded by Barack and Michelle Obama?
JL: You realize that, especially working with Higher Ground, that it’s such an incredible opportunity. It certainly raised the electricity in the room throughout the project. Corbid O’Toole, who’s in the film, described Crip Camp as a sort of love letter to the disabled community. And I think she was really right. I think it’s the kind of film that so many of us have wanted to see, where it was much more of a real human experience… I think it’s breaking down barriers and causing conversations to happen that have needed to happen that people just weren’t willing, or were afraid, to do.