Daily Stream: Crip Camp

Chris Stults, Associate Curator, Film/Video

Mar 30, 2020

A vintage photograph of two campers with disabilities from the documentary Crip Camp

Monday through Friday, something good for watching or listening.

Watch the film on Netflix.


Crip Camp, one of the year’s highest profile documentaries, recently appeared on Netflix and it’s a perfect film for this moment of isolation and anxiety. Winner of the documentary Audience Award at this year’s Sundance and the second film released by Higher Ground, Barack and Michelle Obama’s production company, the movie lives up to its reputation as a crowd pleaser about social change.

Forget what you know about Catskills summer camps from Dirty DancingCrip Camp looks back on Camp Jened, a ramshackle camp for teens with disabilities in the early 1970s. Outside of the camp, many of the kids live lives of isolation, discrimination, and institutionalization but, thanks to the hippie camp owners and counselors, they find Jened to be a place of community, inclusiveness, and fulfillment.

Through a generous amount of beautiful video and 16mm footage from one particular 1971 summer, the film creates a present-tense experience in viewers that captures the feelings of liberation and radical sensibilities at the camp. (One of the film’s codirectors was a teenager at the camp that summer.) As the film charts the rest of the campers’ lives, the storytelling becomes a bit more conventional but, thankfully, the lives of the campers become anything but.

Amazingly, many of the campers end up together later in their lives as activists on the west coast at Berkeley. Several go on to spots at the front lines of the fight for disability rights. Crip Camp’s release is timed to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the Americans With Disabilities Act; the movie’s second half charts the long, hard fight to lay the groundwork for that legislation and make the issue part of the national conversation.

By definition, utopias can’t exist in the real world, but the film shows Camp Jened to be something of a utopia that existed for a brief moment. And that moment showed the campers that a different world was possible, giving them the dedication and radical courage to change the world around them. Stories of communities and activism are especially valuable at this moment when it’s easier than ever to feel alone. Crip Camp helps provide the inspiration to continue the fight.