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Movie Review: Handicamp

I am such a useless creep.

While I generally feel that way, I feel it now even more so since watching Kent Bye’s emotional and educational HANDICAMP.

I was first made aware of the film by my girlfriend Jessica. When she first mentioned the title to me I thought she was then going to describe a black comedy, just as I assume many people may think I’m going to do when seeing the title of this review on the Underground Film Journal. The first thing that popped into my head when I heard “Handicamp” was Damon Wayans’ tasteless “Handi-Man” superhero skit on the show IN LIVING COLOR.

However, “Handicamp” is a real institution. It’s an annual week-long retreat where adults with mental disabilities go into the woods and do the things everybody does at camp – play games, fish, make arts & crafts, etc. The camp’s guests are also teamed up one-to-one with non-disabled “companions,” who act as their personal helpers and guides and, hopefully, friends and confidantes.

The film HANDICAMP focuses most of its attention on two pairs of camper/companions, but most particularly on Sean and Jeff. Sean is a young male adult with Down syndrome and Jeff is a first-time Handicamp volunteer companion.

There’s not that much background information about these two in the film. For example, I don’t know Sean’s age and I don’t know how Jeff got involved with the camp, which at first frustrated me. However, after struggling with the first ten minutes or so of the film, I eventually let HANDICAMP be what it was instead of forcing my pre-conceptions onto it.

And HANDICAMP is both a spiritually uplifting and educational film. Kent was really blessed with finding such great subjects in Jeff and Sean. Jeff really opens up on camera and is able to fully articulate all of the complex emotions he goes through over the course of the week in his evolving relationship with Sean.

But what I found truly extraordinary was Sean’s own view of himself and having to live with his disability. I must confess I am not one who is comfortable with the subject of or being around people with mental disabilities, probably to the extent that I previously wouldn’t even consider them “real” people, putting their disability before their personality.

Sean, however, is aware that he is somehow “different” and asks probing questions of Jeff to find the cause of his otherness. In the film’s most telling scene, Sean asks Jeff what will happen if Jeff and his wife have a child. “Will he be like me?” he asks, referring to his disability. Sean is lonely and concerned that he cannot fall in love and puzzled why a beautiful teenage volunteer can’t return his affections. I truly value HANDICAMP for illuminating me to the idea that a person with mental disabilities can be as acutely conscious of his identity as much as any person without a disability.

HANDICAMP also touches on other subjects. There’s a brief background/overview of the camp by the man who runs it, Don Boden. Also, in addition to Sean and Jeff, the film features another pair: Bonnie, an elderly camper, and Diane, a 16-year-old first-time companion. Unlike Jeff, though, Diane isn’t as comfortable being interviewed on camera, but her story and touching relationship with the feisty Bonnie comes through in overheard conversations and watching the two interact.

The camp, too, is run by a religious organization, the Lutheran Disability Ministries, so there’s also a brief discussion about what kind of benevolent God could allow people to be born with disabilities like Down syndrome and autism. However, that argument only presupposes an anthropomorphic God with human-like biases who interferes in the daily lives of men. For more insight into the concept of God, I recommend Karen Armstrong’s A HISTORY OF GOD, a historical analysis of Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

Finally, during the companions’ preliminary orientation, Don Boden confesses his surprise and pleasure at seeing so many teenagers taking a week out of their summer to volunteer for the camp. I have to say I was fairly shocked by seeing so many teens, too, which is why I began this review saying that I feel like a useless creep. HANDICAMP has made me directly question what kind of valuable role, if any, that I play in society. I’m not sure the answer to that.

If anyone reading this wants to learn more about or volunteer for Handicamp, which may be changing its name to “Handycamp” due to the un-PC use of “Handi”, you can read more about it at the website of the Lutheran Disability Ministries.

Finally, in addition to being a great filmmaker, Kent is a terrific photographer who has done several extensive photo-essays of the country’s premiere film festivals. To view his work, and also read about his other film projects, visit KentBye.com.


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