Enable at the BAFTAs: Jim LeBrecht on the summer camp that championed disability in the 1970s

Everyone has a summer they can’t forget, and in the 1970s there was one New York based camp that changed the landscape. Camp Jened has been brought to life once again by co-directors Jim LeBrecht and Nicola Newnham in Netflix’s critically acclaimed, Crip Camp.

USA recipients, Jim top right Credit: BAFTA

Jim LeBrecht, who has spina bifida, is reminiscing a summer like no other, where disability was celebrated and disabled teens could act, well, like teenagers. 

Almost 40 years after his time at Camp Jened, Jim is now being recognised by BAFTA as part of their BAFTA Breakthrough group.

Congratulations on getting the breakthrough credit for Crip Camp. How does it feel to have your work recognised by BAFTA?

It’s extraordinary. 

I think we’re starting to see many organisations looking at people with disabilities, like myself, as part of the cultural landscape and that our voices not only need to be heard but haven’t been heard very often or very well. 

For me, personally, I’m still blown away and I think this is a great sign and I’m looking forward to see what it will do for my career and, by extension, think it will help a lot of other people because I work in the media; I don’t want to be purely identified as the disabled filmmaker. I am a filmmaker with a disability.

The recognition from BAFTA will potentially open up a wider audience to Crip Camp. What do you hope people get from watching the show?

Crip Camp was directed and produced by myself and Nicole Newnham; Nicole is someone I have worked with for years. My career has always been in audio, starting in theatre and moving into film, and I worked in an audio production in the Bay Area across from San Francisco. There is an incredibly documentary community here, one of those really, great film makers was Nicole, and I had been her sound engineer for three films. 

About six years ago when she was wrapping up her last film (Revolutionary Optimist) I invited her out for lunch. 

Here I am, I’ve basically been working on documentaries as a sound engineer, and I have seen the power of film and the power documentary and I had certainly seen and worked on a number of films dealing with disability, but I felt there were stories missing. 

They weren’t the type of films that I thought were really important and I had been holding onto that in my head for years. 

So, I’m pitching ideas to Nicole over lunch and as we went back to our respective cars I said, I think I’ve always wanted to see a documentary about my summer camp.

I knew, and I believe, there was a great story simply in the exodus of people from Berkeley, California to the New York area. 

It was this hot bed of the independent living movement and civil rights movement, there is a connection there with the movement. 

Nicole told me later that she had an eye roll because everyone always thinks their summer camp is a good story; I told her that it was run by hippies, it was a utopian place of freedom and acceptance and pride. 

I showed Nicole hundreds of photographs from the 1970s of the camp, Nicole expressed that she had never seen anything like it and it was really interesting. It’s all come around organically.

Crip Camp follows you as a teenager and your summer campmates at Camp Jened, and it looks like so much fun. Why was Camp Jened so important for disabled teens in the 1970s?

The film takes place in the summer of 71, the times were of great social upheaval with several different movements going on and the anti-war movement. The people that ran the camp were people that were like-minded and wanted to be progressive and it really was a time where you looked at the status-quo. 

There were so many folks at that camp with disabilities that were isolated; we even had folks who came from Willowbrook State Hospital. Denise Jacobson, she lived up a flight of stairs, so there were plenty of people at the camp who simply could not get out of their own homes. If they did, they were then limited to a block.

This is not the same experience I had in previous summer camps where it felt like we were being analysed, it felt regimented, and you almost felt like a patient. 

At Camp Jened I felt like a teenager. In the film, I meet my first girlfriend Nancy; I get to make out with Nancy at summer camp. There was this ability to have the opportunity to have a great summer camp experience, disabled and non-disabled.

The recognition from BAFTA will potentially open up a wider audience to Crip Camp. What do you hope people get from watching the show?

Nicole and I had some really specific goals for the film, and this was to change perceptions of disability for people with and without a disability. 

The film was also to support conversation to show people that this is happening; you and I are talking today about disability. 

We had an early test-screening looking at our cuts, and the person expressed that they didn’t know what to expect and came in feeling uncomfortable and at the end of the screening he felt like the people on screen where his homies. That is the feeling.

What advice do you have for our readers who may feel their disability will hold them back?

Just because you haven’t seen other people do it, doesn’t mean you can’t. Things are improving. 

My wife and I just finished watching Silent Witness (BBC One), I knew Liz Carr was in it and we were going through the seasons and finally there’s Liz! It’s a huge deal to both of us. 

What I would say is, that first step is always difficult but if you find a community or if you can find people who are interested in doing the same things as you are, try to collaborate on something. 

Even if it is five-minute video of something that interests you, you can shoot this on your phone, it’s just a way to start getting familiar with the technology.

What’s gotten me through my whole life is that you have to have some form of positivity.

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The full list of BAFTA Breakthrough participants in 2020 is:

UK (23):

  • Abigail Dankwa, Multi Camera Director (Love Song)
  • Aleem Khan, Director / Writer (After Love)
  • Ali Tocher, Game Audio Designer (Surgeon Simulator 2)
  • Amir El-Masry, Performer (Limbo)
  • Ben Sharrock & Irune Gurtubai, Director / Writer & Producer (Limbo)
  • Bethany Swan, Hair and Makeup up Designer (I May Destroy You)
  • Bim Ajadi, Director (Here Not Here)
  • Bukky Bakray, Performer (Rocks)
  • Catherine Unger, Artist/Co-Writer (Tangle Tower)
  • Chella Ramanan, Narrative Designer/Writer (Before I Forget)
  • Claire Bromley, External Game Producer (Sackboy: A Big Adventure)
  • Jordan Hogg, Director (Ackley Bridge)
  • Joy Gharoro-Akpojotor, Producer (Blue Story)
  • Lea Schönfelder, Lead Game Designer (Assemble With Care)
  • Linn Waite & Kate Byers, Producers (Bait)
  • Rina Yang, Cinematographer (Sitting in Limbo)
  • Rubika Shah, Director/Writer (White Riot)
  • Ruka Johnson, Costume Designer (Blue Story)
  • Tamara Lawrance, Performer (The Long Song)
  • Tim Renkow, Writer/Performer (Jerk)
  • Youssef Kerkour, Performer (Home)

US (11):

  • Aadip Desai, Writer (The Goldbergs)
  • Arnaldo Licea, Game Designer (The Last of Us Part II)
  • Edson Oda, Director / Writer (Nine Days)
  • Ekwa Msangi, Director / Writer (Farewell Amor)
  • Fernando Reyes Medina, Multiplayer Designer (Halo Infinite)
  • Gene Back, Composer (Cowboys)
  • Jim LeBrecht, Co-Director (Crip Camp)
  • Lauren Ridloff, Performer (Eternals, The Walking Dead)
  • Mary Kenney, Game Writer (Spider-Man: Miles Morales)
  • Nicole Newnham, Co-Director (Crip Camp)
  • Shannon DeVido, Performer (Insatiable, Difficult People)

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