April 04, 2020
The Obama-produced Crip Camp offers a winning combination of the heartfelt and the hard-hitting. Plus, more real-life tales from Cuba to Uzbekistan
Streaming: top docs for lockdown
“Escapism” is an operative word when you’re hunkered down under quarantine and surveying your home viewing options, but how you interpret that is up to you. Many will opt for fiction and fantasy, for the furthest possible reaches from the glum news of the moment. Yet documentary films have their place in this comfort system too: they may not take you to another universe entirely, but at a time when a single global crisis unavoidably consumes all media attention and almost all personal conversation, the window they provide into other realities, past and present, can be a vital way to clear your head of current noise.Netflix is a reliable source of good ones, and they’ve landed one of the year’s best so far in Crip Camp, an audience award winner at Sundance in January that manages to be a crowdpleaser without softening tricky subjects or taking sentimental shortcuts. It’s the second feature documentary to emerge from the Netflix-allied, Barack and Michelle Obama-founded production company Higher Ground: the first, last year’s outstanding American Factory, went on to win the Oscar.It wouldn’t be a surprise to see Crip Camp earn similar plaudits for directors Nicole Newnham and James LeBrecht, the latter coming to this project with some personal investment. Born with spina bifida, and a disability rights activist since the early 70s, LeBrecht was once an attendee of Camp Jened, the groundbreaking New York state summer camp for young disabled people on which this moving film is centred. From 1951 to 1977, it was a place where teens with a variety of disabilities had their first experience of living as a community free from overprotective minders or oppressive bullies; many had their first, formative stirrings of both sexual and political consciousness along the way.
The directors blend heartening archive footage from the camp and contemporary interviews with its past beneficiaries, expanding from a nostalgia piece into a stirring overview of how the American disability rights movement hatched and grew from the spirit of empowered unity that the camp stood for. Judy Heumann, a former camp leader who became a leading activist and legislator for the independent living movement, emerges as the most prominent and galvanising hero in a film of many. From its blunt title’s defiant reclaiming of an ugly slur, Crip Camp is frank and forthright, warmly soulful but free of condescension: there aren’t many better new films out there right now.
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