Nestled in the wilderness of Massachusetts is a summer camp known as Camp Kinderland. On the surface, it doesn’t appear much different than any other sleepaway camp. There are cabins, kids engaged in activities, and lots of beautiful outdoor space. What sets Kinderland apart is that it’s despised by right-wing pundits like Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck, both of whom have leveled accusations that the facility indoctrinates children with Communist and Socialist ideals. One of Kinderland’s former campers is comedian and liberal blogger Katie Halper. To set the record straight about a place she feels had a massive positive impact on her life, Halper made the documentary Commie Camp.
Camp Kinderland was founded in 1923 by Jewish activists who wanted to get their kids out of New York City for the summer, but also desired a facility that would help foster their beliefs. The camp is now open to children of all races and religions, and one of its key beliefs is that all people deserve equal rights. So what kinds of Communist and Socialist goings-on take place there? Commie Camp reveals that the actual activities are far less suspicious than its detractors would lead one to believe. The cabins are all named after civil rights leaders and people who took on the Nazis. There’s a “Hiroshima Day” in which children learn about the devastating effects of the atomic bomb, and remembrances of Holocaust victims are frequent. One former camper recalls organizing a letter writing campaign to Nike, urging them to stop using child laborers. Commie Camp also shows us the annual Peace Olympics, in which kids create art and music projects related to causes like Greenpeace or the Center for Constitutional Rights. If anything, Camp Kinderland seems designed simply to encourage children to be more aware of the world around them. Given that so many kids spend their summers watching TV and playing videogames, there’s something admirable about a camp that nurtures an interest in making the world a better place.
As interesting as it is to see what goes on at Camp Kinderland, Commie Camp never figures out how to assemble the things its camera captures into a cohesive whole. Every good documentary tells a story, building narrative momentum along the way so that its central concept hits with maximum impact. This one tends to stagnate, showing a lot of different camp activities while failing to put a larger context to it all. We get the idea pretty quickly that Kinderland is not what the Limbaughs and Becks of the world claim it to be; the documentary goes on to repeat that idea again and again. It might have helped had Commie Camp picked one or two kids to follow, so that we would learn why they want to go there and what they feel they’re taking away from it. Halper makes some good points and gets in some funny sarcastic one-liners in her voiceover narration, yet her construction of the film lacks the necessary amount of focus to make us understand why we should have more than a passing curiosity about Camp Kinderland.
Even so, there is something heartwarming about seeing kids who care about more than which member of One Direction is the cutest, or when the new Call of Duty game comes out. Commie Camp, despite its narrative shortcomings, at least celebrates that kids like this exist, and that there’s a place willing to nurture them.