How Sundance-Winning ‘Crip Camp’ Got the Attention of the Obamas and Netflix
Jim LeBrecht had mixed several of Nicole Newnham’s documentaries. Then he asked her to make one with him. It turned out to be so good that the Obamas got involved.
Jim LeBrecht is an award-winning sound designer. He has mixed films like The Devil and Daniel Johnston. (“Let's pick a career…Sound for documentary filmmakers,” he joked to No Film School. “Oh yeah, that's really lucrative!”) LeBrecht also happened to have attended an obscure (until-now) summer camp for disabled youth in the early 1970s.
After mixing several docs for award-winning filmmaker Nicole Newnham, he asked her if she’d like to make a film with him. It would be about a place called Camp Jened, where kids with disabilities got to hang out for the summer. It turned out that environment would lead them to a road of intense activism, sit-ins, and marches that eventually brought sweeping changes like the Americans with Disabilities Act. Having started some five years ago, this story became Sundance audience-award winning film Crip Camp.
Co-directors Newnham and LeBrecht sat down with No Film School at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival to talk about making the film, making history, finding a treasure trove of forgotten PortaPak footage, and having the courage to fail.
NFS: Jim, you had mixed a number of Nicole's films, so as what point did you all of a sudden decide to approach her about telling this story?
Jim LeBrecht: In my days of mixing documentaries, I saw the power of it. I felt like there were some stories around disability that weren't being told. I had this one experience at this camp and knew there was a rich story there. Having worked with Nicole on so many projects, it was, "Nicole, what are you doing? What are you up to?" I mentioned there was a story about my summer camp I've always wanted to see made. You don't just put an ad in saying, "Crippled looking for filmmaker." It was the genesis of working together.
Nicole Newnham: The projects that I've worked on have been projects that I think he probably could have seen a relationship. We'd just finished a project called The Revolutionary Optimist, which was about teenagers in the slums of Kolkata in India who were self-organizing to make a change in their communities. So I think it was a natural fit. But nothing could have prepared me for the pictures that Jim sent me after he pitched the story about Camp Jened.
"I mentioned to Nicole, 'Oh by the way, I remember this group of hippie videographers coming to camp, and they actually handed me a camera one day...'
NFS: There’s some jaw-dropping footage in the film that came from Camp Jened, how did you guys find that? Jim, did you remember that it had been shot?
LeBrecht: It's a really good story. I mentioned to Nicole, "Oh by the way, I remember this group of hippie videographers coming to camp, and they actually handed me a camera one day to do a tour of the camp. They had documented the event of this crab outbreak at Camp Jened.” And I didn't really quite remember the name of the videographers, but I thought that ‘people’ was in the name. And then Nicole, you just started trying to hunt them down.
Newnham: It was like a dog on a bone. I wanted to make the story good. But how are we going to show it? How would you make people feel? We didn't want to make a film that was just recounting. So I just did tons and tons of internet research to see if I could figure out who these people were.
And eventually, I found a little notice in an old digitize magazine that said, "Crabs outbreak at Camp Jened for the Handicapped," The People's Video Theater. And then I knew their name. I was able to track down some of the original members, and they led me to this guy named Howard Gutstadt. He was living about seven miles from us in San Francisco, and had all the footage. He was midway through digitizing the tapes but needed a little more funding to complete the digitization. And didn't even really know for sure what was on the tapes because they hadn't seen them all.
NFS: You can't just plug into your USB port.
Newnham: It was extraordinary. We finished digitizing and got this hard drive delivered to the office.
LeBrecht: You plug in this hard drive and see all these videos in there. Eleven of them and about a half an hour-long, and there are names of them like "staff meeting" and "message to parents" and such. You open the one at the top. And all of a sudden I'm seeing this camp I went to more than 45 years ago. I was looking through this black and white viewfinder, at a world that I was part of some many years ago.
And then it's like, "Oh my gosh, who am I going to see?" Because there are many people who had passed away over that number of years, and some people I was really close to. To see some of them in this footage being who I remembered them, irreverent and funny, with attitude. It was the first of many tears shed on this project to be honest.
"I found a little notice in an old digitize magazine that said, 'Crabs outbreak at Camp Jened for the Handicapped,' The People's Video Theater. And then I knew their name."
NFS: Was this footage shot on film or did they have video?
Newnham: It was the very first kind of portable PortaPak video.
LeBrecht: Sony PortaPak, open reel.
Newnham: Their process was they were The People's Video Theater. They would go out on the streets, say in New York, and they would go into a community like Greenwich Village. And they would engage people on topics and they would show them themselves because they had a theory that video was this sort of empowerment tool. So the spirit with which they went into Camp Jened was, "Let's, engage these teenagers in filming whatever is happening that they want to film or talking about whatever they want to talk about, but then we'll show it back to them.”
NFS: Amazing. And over 40+ years all this footage could have, at any moment, disappeared off the face of the Earth.
LeBrecht: Somebody could have had a flood in their basement.
NFS: Or accidentally donated to Goodwill.
NFS: This film made me think about what makes history, and how filmmaking can play a role in that. Would you say, before this film, would people understand how important Camp Jened was in the ADA and civil rights movement for people with disabilities?
LeBrecht: There have been a number of films around disability. All sorts of aspects of it. But we, fortunately, had the resources to dig much more deeply, being able to afford to buy archival. We were afforded the luxury of really being able to dig and find things that anyone had yet to see.
Newnham: We started talking to Judy early on and Jim said, "You know, we're thinking about doing this film, and we're thinking that this camp was important somehow or that camps were important. Do you think it was important?" And she was like, "Yes, it's critically important. It was the place where we came together and saw we had a common struggle. We got to say like, 'Hey, there are these other movements happening. Why can't we do something like that?'"
And then we found there were a couple of academics working on articles or books tracing the history of not just Jened, but other places like it. But then it was honestly finding the archival footage fragments. They were in fragments. The history hasn't been very well archived. We would get a piece of footage and say, " There were a bunch of Jened-ians in the building!" Or "Oh there's a bunch of people from Camp Jened in D.C." "Wait a minute, that was Neil and Denise!” So we tried to give the audience a little bit of that feeling by putting the ideas and slowing the footage down sometimes and just saying like, "Wow, look! Here's our people." We were proving that thesis for ourselves in the process.
NFS: The film was executive produced by the Obama's and their new Higher Ground Productions. How did that exciting development fit into the process for you guys?
Newnham: We were able to show some early footage to Priya Swaminathan and Tonia Davis, who run Higher Ground, and they were really intrigued by this kind of reel that we've cut together. And they said, "We want to fly out and talk with you." So they came up and they spent a lot of time with us and we got to know each other. They looked at a lot of the footage and we discussed what our vision was. And it was exciting because it seemed like we shared a vision. I remember one of the things Priya said to us was, "This seems like in addition to being this amazing personal film, it's also going to be a kind of seminal history film." And we said, "Yes." And she said, "So then, you would need a lot of time to do that, right?"
Nobody ever says that to you. They really understood the value of not just making a good film but making something that could live as some kind of major contribution to the telling of this history. People express a lot of shame around not knowing the story when they see the film. And I felt that too, as I learned. So it was great to have their partnership and of course, very exciting to have the platform and that sense of shared values that the Obama's have around telling untold stories.
"Everybody has a real fear of being a failure or being found out as an imposter. But you have to start somewhere."
NFS: For those working in a different vein of filmmaking, whether they're a sound mixer or AC or whatever, what would be your advice to them if they have a story to tell? How do you find the courage to make a film?
LeBrecht: Everybody has a real fear of being a failure or being found out as an imposter. But you have to start somewhere. And one of the things that I realized in life that we all started out as babies. We all started off in this very, very ordinary place, and we had to find our way up in the world. Francis Coppola, every director, started off with a little bit of fear in their heart about trying to take a step up. But you have to buy into the fact that you're going to have failures and mistakes, and it's the only way to go.
What we found at Camp Jened that was really important, is that to get into any business, it’s important to find community. So, find those who are doing what you want to be doing and just tell them, “Hey, you're a fan. Any words of advice?” You have nothing to lose. You have to promote yourself. You've got to leave the house. You've got to be in the room to make things happen and be fearless. If it's what your passion is, chances are you're going to make it.
Newnham: I think really good stories are usually stories that people have to tell. They can't not tell them. So, I encourage people that have those kinds of stories and especially people like Jim, who spent a lot of time observing and watching other people direct and tell those stories, to just think about it in that way. Ask, why is this story kicking around? Is this something that I absolutely have to tell? Why? If the answers to those questions are powerful, then I think people should definitely make those films.
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