For the past several years, I’ve attempted to watch as many Oscar-nominated films as possible, and for the past two years I have written reviews of each film and posted them to this blog. Alas, I always run out of time and cannot see everything. This year’ ceremony has been delayed, and I started reviewing before nominations were announced, giving me a decent chance at wide coverage. Today we cover…
[1 nomination for Best Documentary Feature]
Crip Camp is a delightful, feel-good film.
That being said, there’s nothing particularly imaginative here in terms of storytelling. Instead, it’s a straightforward introduction to the story of the fight for disabled rights. The second half or so of the film is exactly what you would expect. We watch activists as they follow the lead of the Civil Rights movement to earn their rights via sit-ins, protests, travel to DC, etc. One scene in particular stood out to me, when our main activist calls out a government spokesman for trying to sell them on separate but equal schools. But I’ll admit, overall, I found the second half of the film slightly dull. It’s not that the fight for disabled rights is boring, or that the film did a bad job conveying it. But I think we’ve all seen enough fight-for-rights documentaries at this point that we’re not surprised by anything we see.
The beginning of this film, however, was fantastic. We begin in the late 1960’s, when a bunch of disabled teens traveled to a summer camp in the Catskill Mountains. These early scenes really hit me in the feels, because I spent all of my childhood summers in a summer camp in the Catskills. The camp in the film so closely resembled my own camp that for a brief moment I thought it was the same place. We briefly meet the camp’s founder, who seemed to be a random hippie who was all about the great social experiment of just kinda loving everyone and going out into nature. The kids arrivign are in paradise. There’s no real special facilities or paid professional staff to make sure they’re being medically cared for. Instead, it’s a wild crazy free for all, and the kids LOVE IT. For the first time ever, they don’t feel like isolated outsiders, or like burdens. Being surrounded by other people just like them, with the freedom to do whatever the hell they want, makes the campers realize that they are not the ones with the problem: it’s the rest of society that can’t manage to see human beings. We get tons of fantastic anecdotes from these scenes, both in archival footage, and in current interviews with former campers. People get their first romances (something the outside world didn’t seem to think was a possibility). People explain the disabled social heirarchy (“Polios” at the top, and CP’s at the bottom). People don’t have to be embarassed by whatever uncool thing is happening with them (such as having to wear a diaper) because everyone has something wrong with their bodies. This is all very good stuff.
The film’s main argument seems to be that this very simple idea- a random hippie summer camp in the middle of nowhere, eventually lead to a massive movement to fight for disabled rights and acceptance. When the entire world told these people that they were worthless, the camp taught them that this was by no means the case. So when they entered the real world after camp, they started speaking up for themselves. These changes included fighting for their personal lives. A good examples was a woman with cerebral palsy who had her healthy appendix removed when her real issue was gonorrhea. Nobody believed that a woman with her condition could engage in consensual intercourse, and she got so annoyed by it that she went and got a master’s degree in human sexuality. But beyond this, they also had the confidence to fight for equal protection under the law, for access to public resources such as schools and transportation, for the reform or removal of institutionalization, etc. The ADA gets passed, and while there are clearly still many barriers, disabled people are in a much better position today than they were a few short decades ago. And it’s all because of a short time they got to spend putzing around in a couple cabins in the Catskills.
I understand the idea here, and I think it’s good. But still, to me there was so much more information I would have liked to have learned about the camp itself. It was founded in the early 50’s, but we only start our journey there in the late 60’s, and are under the impression it was founded by hippies. What was going on in the uptight 50’s? We learn very, very little about the founder, which disappointed me. He seems so pivotal to the story, and yet… who the hell is he? Maybe I’m just a sucker for summer camp stories, but to me the camp details were all missing. There was a great documentary out this year called Class Action Park about a lawless crazy theme park in New Jersey int he 80’s, and I had a sense that the craziness of Crip Camp might have been on part with the craziness of Class Action Park. I, personally, would have found all that more engaging, or at least more entertaining. But I guess I’m just showing my own pro-summer-camp-stories bias here.
Anyway, the movie is worth a watch for sure. But of the documentary competitors I’ve seen so far, this one doesn’t stand out like the others.