Summer in the Forest: One L’Arche Perspective

By John Guido, April 5, 2018

While Vanier has been the subject of documentaries over the years, his vision for L’Arche and for humanity has never been woven into the stories of members with intellectual disabilities and their companions who take centre stage with him here. In fact, rarely have persons with intellectual disabilities taken centre stage in a film targeting general audiences. While the film is not without its issues, it is a heart-warming, thought-provoking, and ultimately life-affirming film that needs to be seen.

Connecting with audiences

In the United Kingdom, home to the film’s production team, Summer in the Forest was screened nearly one hundred times – which is extraordinary for a documentary feature without mass-market appeal. L’Arche UK assumed that the film would play well within their network of supporters, but were surprised by the overwhelmingly positive audience reaction and positive reviews not only in the faith-based media, but also in mainstream media and within major disabilities organizations.  Perhaps, the life-affirming elements of the film resonated with audiences weary from Brexit, terrorist attacks, and the Grenfell Tower fire.

Since January, the film has begun a slow roll out in the United States to equally positive response. In the New York Times, Ken Jaworowski wrote, “Summer in the Forest is an extraordinarily tender documentary that asks what it means to be human. Here, even the most gentle scenes raise mighty questions.”

Tim Shriver, disabilities advocate and Chair of Special Olympics International, is quoted on, “This film represents the best of L’Arche and Jean Vanier. The people shown in this film, Jean, Michel, Patrick, Philippe, and Andre showcase the intricacies of humanity and the beauty of the human spirit. In particular, Jean’s story of how he accepted and included the people who society hid away and forgot reminds us all to live with open hearts and minds. It was a joy to watch and to get to know them.”

A mixed reaction within L’Arche

When it comes to Summer in the Forest, the opinions of L’Arche members are divided into two camps: those who find it a tender portrait of life in two L’Arche communities and of Jean Vanier’s vision in words and action; and those who find it a less-than-respectful portrayal of men and women with intellectual disabilities out of step with the current sensibilities of L’Arche and the wider disabilities community.

And rather than living in a village on the edge of a forest, the members of L’Arche in Canada live in the broader community and contribute to the life of the school, work, social, and faith communities to which they belong.

We must remember that this is an independent film about Jean Vanier, the vision he developed over 50 years ago, and stories from L’Arche Trosly and L’Arche Bethlehem. It’s not a documentary on the development and diversity of L’Arche around the world. To see the L’Arche point of view, watch the powerful As I Am series on the L’Arche Internationale YouTube channel,

One long-term member’s perspective

Summer in the Forest takes place in the village of Trosly at the edge of the ancient forest of Compiègne that gives the film its somewhat misleading title. The forest is a source of beautiful scenery, including an almost too idyllic picnic, yet the L’Arche community is actually not in the forest, but in an ordinary village. Characters are introduced to us in a leisurely way, setting the pace for much of the film. Whether you find Summer in the Forest to be moving, cringe-worthy, or as in my case a bit of both, we seem to agree that it feels long and slow.

The forest takes on darker tones when Michel and an assistant take a trip into the woods to visit a memorial to the Jews deported from the region. This moving act of remembrance reminds us that even when surrounded by calm and beauty, the horrors of evil and intolerance are not far away. Vanier founded L’Arche in part as a response to the inhumanity of Auschwitz and Hiroshima. It is particularly poignant to remember that the first victims of the Nazi gas chambers were people with disabilities and mental illness who had been segregated and dehumanized.

Through various stories, we come to know something of Michel, And, Patrick, David and the others. We go on a car ride to visit family and hear of the struggles of growing up in a different era. We see the heartache of desire for a relationship with an assistant to be more than the friendship that she offers. We are even brought into a fantasy role-play. Some personal details should have been respected as private; the same details would never be shared about Vanier or the assistants. At the same time, we see strengths in these individuals as well as their vulnerabilities.

And we listen to Jean Vanier’s vision for the world and his own journey in L’Arche. At times, Vanier, who is in his late 80s, uses language that is insensitive by current standards, yet he remains deeply insightful and inspiring. His affection for the men and women in his community, some of whom he has lived with for decades, is clearly heartfelt and reciprocated. It’s clear that he ‘walks the talk’ and has found deep happiness in doing so.

Later in the film, we follow Vanier to Bethlehem. At first, it seemed a bit exotic and disorienting. L’Arche in Bethlehem is not isolated from reality as the members live with their families in Palestinian towns in the shadow of the wall and the division and violence it represents. After a few minutes, we discover that even with significant political, religious and cultural differences, the two L’Arche communities share significant characteristics – they are places of acceptance, safety, valued work, relationships, and celebration. Perhaps, cultural differences reveal a universal humanity that unites us all.

The film ends back at the edge of the forest with the engagement party of Celine and Fred, two of the community members we have come to know. Now, we’re on safe ground with the disabilities community as Jean Vanier and L’Arche bless the impending marriage of this couple, a choice that remains out of reach for many people with intellectual disabilities. This great feast is a celebration of life uniting their families and their L’Arche community.

Finally, I understood what the forest of the title is really about. Summer in the Forest isn’t a tragedy about the lives of people with intellectual disabilities. Nor is it an idealistic, bucolic vision; we have faced the realities of life with its losses, inequalities, and occasional brutality. Rather, we’re in the realm of a Shakespeare comedy. We enter the forest leaving behind all that we know and thought we understood. The world is turned upside down as people who are marginalized, vulnerable, and once labeled ‘idiots’ reveal their true humanity in all its messy complexity. In the process, they teach those who are privileged what it really means to be human. And it all ends with a life-affirming celebration of love and community.

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