In the early 1970s, ‘Crip Camp’ director Jim LeBrecht was just a camper at Camp Jened, a summer camp for disabled teens in the Catskills. For LeBrecht and the other kids, the experience was more about experiencing the kind of independence that wasn’t easily accessible as they navigated life as young disabled people. Back then, who could’ve imagined that the camp would spawn a documentary backed by President Barack Obama and Michelle Obama, through their new production company Higher Ground? Certainly not LeBrecht, nor his co-director Nicole Newnham.

“We’re speechless,” Newnham told Variety’s Angelique Jackson of the Obamas’ involvement, as she and LeBrecht dropped by Variety’s Sundance Studio, presented by AT&T during the festival.

“We’re really speechless knowing that … they know that a film around disability is really, really important,” LeBrecht added. “And the way they’ve talked about it is extraordinary, but us knowing that our film is going to be seen because of their input.”

LeBrecht boasts over 35 years of experience as a film and theater sound designer and mixer and linked up with co-director Emmy-winning documentarian Newnham to tell his story.

“The footage is totally incredible and Jim had remembered that there was a video coalition in the 70s, the People’s Video Theater, that had showed up at the camp and that they had actually handed him the camera, so in a way the film was starting to be made 50 years ago,” Newnham explained. “But I think that actually the experience of being able to see these teenagers who are vibrant and funny and crazy and, you know, full on going wild in sort of the heyday of the 60s and 70s is kind of what draws people in, disarms them. I think the audience starts to kind of fall in love with these characters and start feel like they’re their friends. And then as you go on this amazing journey through history and the disability civil right movement, you’re going from that point of view and it’s pretty extraordinary.”

As the documentary details, in many ways, the camp laid the foundation for the eventual passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, a civil rights law that prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities in all areas of public life (jobs, schools, transportation, etc.). The pair also praised the Sundance Institute for collaborating with them on making the festival more accessible for attendees and filmmakers like LeBrecht.

As for what LeBrecht hopes people take from the documentary, he said, “I think it’s a surprising story that no one’s really known about and have never really seen people with disabilities as activists and as badass as we are.”

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