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The saga of Camp Jened, the summer camp for disabled teens that took off in the early 1970s, has enough appeal to consume an entire movie: The annual Catskills event provided ostracized youth with the opportunity to experience a sense of normalcy — earnest, unfettered human connections — not to mention all the sex and drugs. However, while that gathering provides an appealing starting point for “Crip Camp,” it’s only the first chapter of a much longer story.
Directors Nicole Newnham and Jim LeBrecht’s inspiring look at the roots of the disability rights movement tracks several of those campers through the ages — including LeBrecht himself — as they mature into activists empowered by the prospects of finding their voice in an ambivalent society. While the hodgepodge of footage and talking heads sometimes struggles to encapsulate the sprawling history at its center, the filmmakers avoid taking the sentimental nature of the story for granted. The result is a rousing historical overview, doused in the nostalgia and the intimate experiences of the movement’s fiercest warriors.
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Still, the “Crip Camp” in question provides a wondrous time capsule on which the rest of the story turns. Just down the road from Woodstock, the camp provided disabled teens with an opportunity for their own hippy utopia, and the bountiful footage shot by campers at the time captures virtually every facet of the experience. Beginning in 1971, the recollections from the likes of polio-stricken LeBrecht (spotted in archival clips as a long-haired ladies man) show the extent to which Camp Jened allowed its young residents to operate as if “there was no outside world.” That means charming acoustic jam sessions, boisterous talent shows, and a lot of hooking up. Even a sudden crabs outbreak generates more...
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