Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBBB
USA, 2020. Higher Ground Productions. Screenplay by James Lebrecht, Nicole Newnham, David Radcliff. Cinematography by Vicente Franco, Mario Furloni, Tom Kaufman, Justin Schein, Jon Shenk. Produced by Sara Bolder, James Lebrecht, Nicole Newnham. Music by Bear McCreary. Film Editing by Andrew Gersh, Mary Lampson, Eileen Meyer. Independent Spirit Awards 2020. Washington Film Critics Awards 2020.
From 1951 to 1977, a camp operated in upstate New York that catered to disabled children with physical or mental situations as diverse as their personalities and origins. Staffed with plenty of supporters for the kids, the camp often struggled financially but succeeded at offering young people the opportunity to be surrounded by others more or less like them, a refreshing change from being the one disabled person in the family or on the block. Instead of being stared at or pitied, Camp Jened gave these bright young people a chance to find fun, a sense of belonging and, as evidenced by the various outbreaks of STI’s, young love. It’s no surprise, then, to learn that Camp Jened is considered one of the fundamental reasons why activism for the disabled blossomed in the seventies, many of the people who would later be holding sit-ins and hunger strikes in Berkeley and Washington, DC were former attendees of the camp. Judith Heumann, later to be appointed Special Advisor for International Disability Rights under President Obama, was herself an alumnus of Jened, leading a group of Americans who were tired of being marginalized by the world around them, fighting for the creation and passing of the American Disabilities Act and then, after seeing that it was amounting to little more than lip service, fighting for it to be put into action. The third-act climax is a very exciting sequence in which dedicated activists, as full of youthful rebellion as the era of counterculture could provide, hold the 504 Sit-in protest at the local Department of Health, Education, and Welfare in San Francisco, demanding article 504 of the Disabilities Act (basically legislating that all publicly-funded spaces be inclusive) be fulfilled, a fight they then took to the capital. The San Francisco protest lasted a month and defied the public’s understanding of the disabled as helpless and weak, their great cause supported by members of other communities who brought food and supplies throughout. Regulations were signed at the end of April 1977 and marked a victory in the lengthy road that still continues for members of the disabled community, but what this powerful and inspiring documentaries shows us is the importance of it all stemming from the joy, fellowship and support that surviving witnesses recall experiencing at summer camp. This beautifully assembled collection of interviews and file footage is placed on a historical timeline to provide an educational experience full of fascinating facts, but at the heart of it is a tale of how very important it is, and what a difference it can make to history, to encourage all people to see themselves as worthy.