Sundance festival opens with a trip to camp, and a call to action on disabled rights

Taylor Swift takes selfies with fans outside the Eccles Theatre before the premiere of her film "Taylor Swift: Miss Americana." on the opening night of the 2020 Sundance Film Festival, in Park City, Thursday, Jan. 23, 2020.

Park City • The 2020 Sundance Film Festival, an event that regulars often compare to going to summer camp, showed life at a real summer camp in its opening-night film — with a rousing and emotional documentary about camp kids who sparked a civil rights movement.

“I really wanted to go back to camp so badly [when making the movie],” said Jim LeBrecht, co-director and narrator of the documentary “Crip Camp.” The film premiered Thursday evening at the Eccles Theatre in Park City, launching the 11 days filled with 120 feature films, plus TV series, shorts, panels and conversations.

“Crip Camp” shows life in the early ‘70s at Camp Jened, a summer camp for disabled children in the Catskills Mountains of upstate New York. The camp, run by hippies and free spirits, gave its kids “the ability to be together and be able to be ourselves, in a society where we cannot be ourselves,” Judy Heumann, who was a 23-year-old counselor at the camp in 1971, said during the post-screening Q&A.

The movie also shows how many of the campers, led by Heumann, left New York for the San Francisco Bay area, and became activists for the rights of the disabled.

Heumann was one of the first to go west, said LeBrecht, who co-directed the film with Nicole Newnham. “She called back to the old country, in New York,” LeBrecht said. “She said, ‘The ramps are paved with gold!’”

The movie also shows how Heumann and others organized protests to fight back against discrimination of the disabled. President Richard Nixon signed a non-discrimination clause into law in 1973, but the law was rarely enforced.

In 1977, Heumann led a massive occupation of the San Francisco regional office of the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare. The sit-in lasted 24 days, supported by unions, members of Congress and the Black Panthers. The protest ended when Joseph Califano, the department’s secretary under President Jimmy Carter, finally approved new regulations.

The activism continued, leading to the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990.

Footage that LeBrecht and Newnham compiled in the film shows Camp Jened alumni at the forefront of nearly every protest.

Heumann told the audience she hopes the movie gives them an emotional high, but also prods them to action. “The question is, ‘What’s next?,’” Heumann said. “What can you commit yourself to do … to label discrimination against disabled people as discrimination?”

Heumann received the night’s second standing ovation from the Eccles audience during the Q&A. The first began before the credits were over, as LeBrecht — who was born with spina bifida, and was a Camp Jened kid at 15 — and several of the film’s subjects wheeled onto the stage.

The premiere of “Crip Camp” is also the most visible sign of what Kim Yutani, the festival’s director of programming, called a “focus on sustained accessibility” at this year’s festival — a partnership with Easterseals Disability Services, Dolby Laboratories, and the Ruderman Family Foundation, a major advocate for disabled rights.

In a pre-recorded opening-day message to the media, Yutani said that more films will be presented with closed- captions, and ASL interpreters at panels and Q&As.

In a festival first, an ASL interpreter took the stage before “Crip Camp,” alongside Sundance Institute founder Robert Redford as he delivered his annual greeting to festival attendees.

Redford reflected on the origins of the Sundance Institute, which he founded in 1981 to develop independent voices in film, and how in 1985, Sundance took over operations of the U.S. Film Festival in Park City — which became the Sundance Film Festival in 1991.

Redford spent most of his talk praising John Cooper, the festival’s director since 2010, who is retiring from the job after this year’s festival.

“It’s been a really fun and exciting ride with Cooper,” Redford said, forgoing his usual habit of needling his employee. Redford even introduced Cooper’s mother, Dallas, sitting in the Eccles audience.

The ride continues Friday, with screenings in all of the festival’s venues in Park City, Salt Lake City and the Sundance resort. The festival concludes Feb. 2.