ROCKLAND, Maine ― Fifty years ago, Rockland-based filmmaker Ben Levine was a part of a filmmaking group in New York City that used early handheld video cameras to document the lives of marginalized people and give them tools to advocate for themselves.
In 1971, he and members of the People’s Video Theater spent a week at a summer camp for teenagers with disabilities in upstate New York, where they captured the lives of campers on film. They allowed the campers to use the cameras and screen the footage.
But as video technology advanced, half-inch film tapes became obsolete as did the tape players required to watch them. Soon they became impossible to watch.
“When I moved to Maine, I moved my eight or 10 boxes of tapes. I moved about 15 times and each time I felt like maybe I should throw these out because I can’t watch them anymore,” Levine said. “But I held onto them because I had a very strong visual memory of these projects and what the images looked like, and I knew that there was very beautiful material that shouldn’t be destroyed.”
Thanks to strides in digitization technology the footage was revived. It made its world debut last month at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, as part of the documentary film “Crip Camp,” where it earned the Audience Award for Best U.S. Documentary.
“Crip Camp” chronicles the lives of Camp Jened’s campers and staff, from their days there through the progression of the disability right’s movement, culminating with the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.
The film is directed by Nicole Newnham and former camper Jim LeBrecht.
Former President Barack Obama and Michelle Obama’s production company, Higher Ground, has purchased the film and it will be streaming on Netflix beginning March 25.
But Maine audiences will get a sneak-peek at the film this weekend in Camden at the Points North Institute’s Cabin Fever Film Festival.
“It’s an extremely powerful and moving film,” Points North Institute Executive Director Ben Fowlie said. “The depth of connections [the film has] to Maine is just interesting in and of itself.”
Aside from Levine’s involvement, the film was edited in part by two Maine-based filmmakers, Mary Lampson, of Winthrop, and Shane Hofeldt, of Camden.
The two worked on editing the beginning of the film, which largely comprises archival footage shot by Levine and other members of the People’s Video Theater.
“The footage is extraordinary. It has a kind of immediacy that is hard to describe in words. But I think that Ben and the collective that he was part of had this sense of the camera as a tool to be put in people’s hands to allow them to sort of speak and look at themselves,” Lampson said. “It doesn’t feel like funky, archive footage. It brings you to that place in a really extraordinary way.”
Levine was formally trained as a clinical psychologist, working in Vietnam with soldiers who were grappling with opioid addiction. When he returned to the U.S. he began experimenting with how handheld video technology could be used “to show people themselves.”
As the anti-war and civil-rights movement boiled over in the early 1970s Levine, through the People’s Video Theater, used this kind of video playback as a way to be “politically and personally helpful to people.”
“In today’s world of cellphones this [instant video feedback] doesn’t sound like very much, but when you see this old material, you see people looking at themselves and their eyes just getting bigger and bigger because they’ve never seen themselves as other people see them live,” Levine said.
Several years ago, when Newnham and LeBrecht were discussing making a film about the disabilities rights movement, LeBrecht recalled the week at Camp Jened when the People’s Video Theater was filming.
It took a few months for Newnham to track down Howard Gutstadt, a co-founder of the video collective. Coincidentally, the collective received a grant from the National Endowment of the Arts around that time to digitize its tapes which hadn’t been viewed in decades.
“A couple of weeks later Nicole gets to see the [Camp Jened tapes] for the first time and we get to see them for the first time in 45 years,” Levine said. “I just looked at them and said ‘Wow, this is just the way I remember it. It’s just as strong, it’s just as beautiful.’ The joy, the emotions coming from the people being filmed, that’s what art is about isn’t it? To create an opportunity for expression.”
It’s work that Levine is still doing to this day, through the Rockland-based organization, Speaking Place, which he runs with co-founder Julia Schulz.
Schulz, an anthropologist, teamed up with Levine in the 1990s to explore the survival of the French-Canadian and Franco-American cultures in Maine and how those communities have struggled to hold onto their identity. That work culminated with the 2002 documentary, “Reveil: Waking up French.”
The Speaking Place has also worked with Maine’s Passamaquoddy population, as well as communities in Mexico on how to use video technology to preserve their language and culture.
“Crip Camp” is opening the Cabin Fever Film Festival in Camden on Friday night and a second screening of the film will play on Sunday. It is one of seven feature films being screened at the festival. For a full schedule, visit the Points North Institute website.