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BAFTA Interview: James LeBrecht

James LeBrecht
James LeBrecht

Ask most people how last year was for them and chances are they will say 2020 wasn’t great, but for James LeBrecht and the filmmaker would say the turbulent twelve months had its perks.

In November James received a BAFTA Breakthrough for his work on Crip Camp, a documentary about a holiday vacation for disabled people and the impact it had on the disability rights movement.

It was a subject close to his heart, being born with spina bifida the New Yorker classes himself as a disability rights activist in his youthful years.

Towards the tail end of last year ABLE2UK was granted an interview with the man behind one of the most gripping films of 2020.

After finishing education, you received an apprenticeship at a post-production company, what was that like?

Well, my apprenticeship was more of a barely paid internship. And that happened after I had been a well-known sound designer at the Berkeley Repertory Theater, a major regional theater in the US. This was all at the legendary Saul Zaentz Film Center - Saul’s building that was full of editing rooms and 2 mix stages plus the recording studio, Fantasy Studios. I was doing very mundane tasks, but this was much needed grunt work to keep the sound editors working. In that day, this was before the computerization of film, I was doing things like writing out cue sheets for the mixers and making synch leaders that would be part of the sound reels used during the mix. Funny thing, back then, in the late summer of 1989, I went from sound designing a Shakespearean production directed by Adrian Hall (the famous UK stage director) at the Old Globe theater in San Diego, in southern California to Berkeley, where the film I interned on was called Madhouse and included a scene where a cat threw up inside a car. Oh, how the mighty had fallen.

Can you tell us more about the award-winning documentary, Crip Camp, and your time at Camp Jened?

I’m not sure how to answer the question about the film and Jened. I can say that the reception that Crip Camp has received worldwide has been so humbling for Nicole Newnham and I. That a small idea that I pitched to her to make 6 years ago could turn into a film that we both directed and produced and has people thinking about the disabled in a new light is still hard to let in fully. I doubt that I will ever be able to do so. I look back on the few summers I spent at Camp Jened as a teenager with the perspective of a much older man. I see how that place shaped me as a person and set me on a trajectory that I’m still living. To meet Judy Heumann and to see someone who was also a wheelchair user as role model had a huge impression on me. To know and believe that we could be proud of who we were not in spite of but because we had disabilities completely blew my mind. To find out that we could fight back and win was so motivating to me to do the same. My fellow campers, counselors and staff at Camp Jened need to be praised for creating that special utopia where we dreamed big and never took no for an answer. I am forever grateful to Nicole for the collaboration that we forged. And thankful to producer Sara Bolder who worked at our dinning room table for months on end writing grants and contacting funders. Beyond that, without EP Howard Gertler, Netflix and the Obama’s production company, Higher Ground I know it would have been close to impossible to make our film as it turned out or reach so many people. You may not know these names, but if there is an unknown story that bears telling, it is how we came together as allies and community to try and make the world a better place, both at Camp Jened (and can I say it?) with our film.

How did it feel to be recognised by BAFTA as a Breakthrough participant in 2020?

The recognition that BAFTA has bestowed upon me feels remarkable and life changing. I find myself feeling funny that I am a breakthrough artist at the age of 64, but that’s what makes this all the more precious. They see in me, as an artist, something with more to give. Someone worth investing in. I’m going to take this wonderful opportunity to learn as much as I can and give back. The more opportunities I can give to people with disabilities to work in our industry, the sooner that we can shape how society sees us. Until we are in the director’s seat or in the writer’s rooms (everywhere actually), stories that perpetuate harmful stereotypes will continue to dominate the landscape. I have so much to learn from the professionals in the UK, because you all are years ahead of us here in the US in seeing people from my community in shows and films. People with disabilities are creating ground-breaking projects. You have no idea what it means to me to learn about a show like Crip Tales, curated by Mat Fraser..

If you were ABLE2 do anything what would it be?

If I was able to do anything, I would go back in time and live in San Francisco during the Summer of Love, go to concerts and hang out in a hippie commune. God Bless, Camp Jened, it wasn’t all that but it was as close as I got and I feel very content with having those summers and memories.

BAFTA Breakthrough, launched globally in May 2020 and previously known as Breakthrough Brits, has been running in the UK since 2013.