Summer in the Forest
Back in the mid-60s, Canadian philosopher Jean Vanier was made aware of the plight of thousands of people with developmental disabilities who had become institutionalised. It has to be remembered, this was a period far different from today, where people with learning difficulties were viewed as insane, rather than afforded the opportunity to form a meaningful life of their own. In many respects, Jean was a pioneer of an idea we take for granted today, noticing than many of people in these institutions were more than capable of leading a functional life, rather than being left to rot under heavy sedation.
Jean’s natural instinct was to find a way to help, and so he invited two of the men who had been locked up to live with him in Trosly-Breuil, France. This was the start of what was to become L’Arche, which has now branched out to 35 countries, totalling 147 not-for-profit communities. The idea is a simple one: bringing together those with learning disabilities to live with their carers in a building that provides them with their own individual apartment space. Randall Wright’s documentary Summer in the Forest captures some of that spirit, setting its attention on the original L’Arche that rests near to a forest on the outskirts of Paris.
The calm, tranquil nature of the area emanates through to the peaceful and tender words of Jean, whose voiceover intermittently guides us through a life that has mostly been spent in the service of others. Now well into his late eighties, he is a lovingly kind man who has devoted much of his life to ensuring these people could escape the sort of awful conditions his own father suffered in WWII concentration camps. We spend time with residents like Philippe and Patrick, who have managed to live through the traumatic years of childhood and early adult life, and can now find comfort in these quiet surroundings.
There is not a moment of this documentary that feels forced or coerced, Wright taking an observational stance that allows their lives to appear on camera as they would on any other day. Understandably, there is a lot kindness and affection held towards Jean for the world he has opened up to those who otherwise would’ve experienced a far more restricted way of life. They are able to avoid judgement in a small community that is there to offer love and support their own choices, treated like the adults they deserve to be. As a man of faith, Jean continues to serve as a wonderful reminder of the sort of humanity the world could sorely do with more of.