Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution (Review)

Though primarily an important documentary about the disabled community – and about disabled representation in general – this film is also a great document on the change that everyday people can achieve. The film morphs into something really inspiring and shows how revolutionary actions come from seemingly pedestrian origins. It is a portrait of potential, about what people can achieve no matter what their circumstances, and is a bold call for something beyond acceptance.

The heart of this film is about normalisation, which is very interesting. It starts by showing an early 70s camp (the one colloquially named in the title), Camp Jened, and then follows its impact right up to actual political change – caused by a grass roots, people powered movement (with intersectional politics). This camp was a key part in the process of normalisation, it existed as a camp for people with disabilities at a time when the conditions for – and attitudes towards – this community were even worse than today (and in many places utterly horrifying). The result of this was a normalising experience. Residents talk to us (via talking head, archive footage) about how their experience at this camp shaped them. Through being among the wider community, they saw themselves not as outliers but just like everyone else. It was also a place in which divergence and difference became something accepted, and part of normality.

In showing this, it also puts it across to the viewer. The film lets people talk about themselves and their own conditions, or general circumstances, at length. This is not a film with an intrusive interviewer (though you do hear them at points) and it is not one that looks for wider voices. Again, it normalises. People are not spoken about, they speak for themselves – which is subtly powerful. It is tempting to call this film out as a traditional documentary. Truly, there is nothing radical here in terms of form and documentaries often need divergence to stand out. However, this traditionalism is why the film works as well as it does: it is another part of the normalisation. By presenting itself as a traditional documentary, populated by these voices and these stories that are so atypical – and marginalised – in cinema (and in wider society) the film is inherently revolutionary. The film wants to make the important argument that people are people, and that society needs to be built to accommodate all people – as opposed to presenting, or just treating, many as abnormal. Therefore, this very normal feeling approach is the perfect pairing for a brilliant message.

This normalisation goes a step further though, to the point of normalising revolutionary action – which is awesome. As the film progresses, we get to know amazing people and learn so many utterly vital stories. Again, the clarity of the straightforward filmmaking allows the people and their stories to take centre stage. By not overshadowing anything with technique, flair or stylistic deviation, all our focus is on the parts that matter. And, as we focus, we feel the film slowly rise up into something overtly political. The film starts to include wider struggles – considering anti-racism movements and how the struggle for civil-rights must be understood as an intersectional issue. In general, the understanding of intersectionality is a great strength of the film; the diverse nature of disability – which the film champions – makes this struggle an inherently wide one that has to take into account so many factors. But, it goes beyond this, considering how race and gender further complicate issues around the treatment of people with disabilities – and their lived experiences. A lovely touch is including the Black Panther’s impact on the movement that the film starts to chart. This is a clear intersectional link and, in this normalising film, it is another great, positive presentation of a much maligned group. The real joy though is that when we get to an actual revolutionary action, where a group of people have done an utterly incredible thing it, well, all feels normal. This tacitly puts the possibility of political change within reach, a really important message for viewers.

This is truly an important film. It is important for the stories it documents, and each is documented thoroughly and with great care. It is also important because of how it cleverly politicises everything. It is a film full of ideas that many will perceive as radical, revolutionary or anti-establishment. However, it makes these feel normal – as they should feel – and does not let these terms every take on a pejorative status.

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