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(DOC NYC, “America’s largest documentary festival” is back this year for its 13th edition, running November 9-27. Check out Chris Reed’s movie review of Santa Camp. Seen it? Join the conversation with HtN on our Letterboxd Page.)

Who is Santa Claus and what does he look like? His is a legend long in the making, derived initially from the story of the third-century Turkish monk St. Nicholas and eventually evolving into the image of a jolly, rotund elderly white man with a big bushy beard, dressed in red. Evolution is the key word here, for that implies change and adaptation. Cultural icons need not remain immutable, and this is the central subject of the new documentary Santa Camp, from director Nick Sweeney (AKA Jane Roe), which asks to consider whether Santa need always be what he has been for most of us in our lifetimes. Perhaps it’s time to develop into someone new.

As the title indicates, we do indeed visit a training ground for Santa performers, this one run by the New England Santa Society, a group that is trying, however clumsily at times, to diversify their membership and break the stereotype of who should portray jolly old Saint Nick. The first time they appear on camera, they are all older white men, but the leaders among them, Santa Dan especially, are hoping to recruit people who are not. With an onscreen countdown leading us towards the August workshop (and then later towards Christmas season), we proceed to meet a fascinating cast of characters.

Santa Chris would be their first Black Santa. A married father of a little girl, he lives in North Little Rock, Arkansas, finding his motivation to break down barriers from a nasty letter he received after putting up an inflatable Black Santa on his front lawn. If that riles up the racists, just wait and see what comes next! Then there is Levi, a trans man who hopes to offer trans kids someone in whom they can see themselves, as well. Finally, Santa Fin joins the mix. In his late twenties, he has spina bifida and cannot verbalize words (though he can sure “ho ho ho” with the best of them), yet hopes to fulfill his ambition of portraying Santa in a Christmas parade, his mother Suki and sister Rose right there with him.

It’s not just about the men, however, as the film also examines the role that women have traditionally played as Mrs. Claus and how that, too, should be updated. Levi’s wife, Heidi, leads the way, insisting that, with her Ph.D., she be Dr. Claus, thank you very much. But even the much older Dianne, who has been doing this for a while, realizes that the time for equal treatment is now, and proves herself more than ready to demand better.

There is pushback, though mostly from outside the Santa Society. Once we move beyond the camp and into the holiday activities in December, both Chris and Levi discover that not everyone is on board with inclusion. The Proud Boys and other so-called Christian activists come out to protest when Levi and Heid dare welcome children onto their laps, and there are some scary moments. For Chris, it’s more about the microaggressions and weak attendance by white folks at his own public appearance, a fact more than made up for by the obvious joy that African Americans take in seeing him. For Fin, there is less drama, though it’s not clear whether he will get to be in the parade he dreams of. Wait and see.

It’s an inspiring portrait of people unafraid to take on the past and build a better future. Sweeney makes sure to throw in plenty of delightful montages and moments, well aware of the fun he can have with a large group of Santas all in one place. Strap on your suit, tighten your belt, and get ready for a triple barrel of laughs layered on top of some very serious, and essential, drama. As the t-shirt we see one of the protagonists wearing reads: Ho3. Let’s get this Christmas party started!

– Christopher Llewellyn Reed (@ChrisReedFilm)

2022 DOC NYC; Nick Sweeney; Santa Camp documentary movie review

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Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator. A member of both the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA) and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, he is: lead film critic at Hammer to Nail; editor at Film Festival Today; formerly the host of the award-winning Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reed, from Dragon Digital Media; and the author of Film Editing: Theory and Practice. In addition, he is one of the founders and former cohosts of The Fog of Truth, a podcast devoted to documentary cinema.

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