Sundance 2020: Documentary Pairs – Crip Camp and Welcome to Chechnya

4.5

Summary

Crip Camp and Welcome to Chechnya were two of the strongest, most emotional activism-based documentaries at Sundance 2020.

Both Crip Camp and Welcome to Chechnya were seen at Sundance 2020. Check out all of our coverage from the festival.


Crip Camp

Most of us have been to summer camp. We have vague memories of staying up late in cabins, sleeping on bunk beds, looking up to counselors, playing capture the flag, and eating whatever was in front of us at the dining halls. It’s almost a rite of passage for kids: spend at least one summer at sleepaway camp.  Winner of the Audience Award: U.S. Documentary, Crip Camp looks at those that have been left out of these summer camps: disabled teenagers.

Using 1971 footage from Camp Jened, a summer camp near Woodstock, NY, Nicole Newnham and Jim LeBrecht (a camper himself) give audiences reason to laugh, cry, and experience every emotion in-between. Following the campers throughout the loves, with a focus on leading activist Judy Heumann and LeBrecht himself, Crip Camp moves beyond the summer camp much quicker than you’d expect. The film uses most of its runtime to explore the disability rights and accessibility movement, with Heumann at the center of massive sit-ins and hunger strikes. The entire film culminates in the success of the Americans With Disabilities Act, a legislation that you see took blood, sweat, and lots of tears, the latter of which start to flow once these incredible people achieve the smallest amount of equality.

Crip Camp warms your heart in the first 30 minutes, only to dive into a much larger story about how we treat those with disabilities and how our past shows a different, darker story than our present. Newnham and LeBrecht look at a civil rights fight that most of us have overlooked, much like the people it was trying to help. The film spans over four decades of experiences for these Camp Jened campers, who turned out to be some of the most important activists in the country. The amount of Jened campers leading these strikes and marches is staggering, leaving you inspired to contribute in any way that you can to those in the world striving for positive change. Heumann becomes synonymous with the film and the activism itself, showing just how far we have come and how far we still have to go.

Crip Camp leverages its campers and their stories to weave a narrative that is both hilarious, saddening and inspiring all at once. By the end, the documentary feels like essential viewing, and will likely have Netflix competing for more awards next year.

Welcome to Chechnya

One of the bravest stories regarding the bravest people, HBO’s Welcome to Chechnya jumps directly into action. Director David France’s documentary follows the LGBTQ cleansing in the secretive Russian republic of Chechnya. We see a small group of activists working to remove LGBTQ citizens out of Russia through a series of safe houses, government partnerships around the world, and lots of risky travel plans.

Every single one of these escapees’ faces has been CGI-modified to look different; that’s how scary and intense this cleansing is for Chechens. We follow a few of these citizens as they are forced to stay inside, keep low profiles, and move quickly when the time comes. The documentary never fails to resonate, never calms down, never lets its audiences relax. Always tense and important, Welcome to Chechnya felt like one of, if not the most important piece of filmmaking at the entire festival.

Everyone in the film shows courage and urges you to do the same. Detailing the imprisonment of mostly young LGBTQ citizens, France’s film is horrific and almost unwatchable at times. Clips of unnecessary violence towards these random citizens are spliced throughout the film, with most of the audience covering their eyes but still hearing the brutality.

As you watch Welcome to Chechnya, a sense of disappointment and anger fills you up. In some places, the world continues to be awful for those that are different, but we either don’t or can’t care enough to look into these atrocities. Though this likely isn’t the goal of the documentary, it does make you feel frustrated for not knowing about these stories earlier. At the same time, France’s documentary is very much a call-to-action to listen to others, to be informed, and to contribute to causes that matter.


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Michael Frank

Based in Brooklyn, NY, Michael is a regular critic for Ready Steady Cut and also writes for Cinema Sentries, The Film Experience and Film Inquiry.

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