Director: Randall Wright
Starring: Jean Vanier
Running time: 108 mins
Selected UK screenings from 23 June 2017
Two people are taking a walk together in the Compiègne forest. A voiceover reflects on nature: how the birds do not worry, they simply are who they are, and how we human beings, like the birds, can also find this quietness within us. This prayerful beginning sets the tone for a film which is characterised by its stillness and peace.
Summer in the Forest (originally titled The Idiots) communicates to its viewers historical information about L'Arche, the now-vast network of communities that support people with learning disabilities, by telling a story. Its larger narrative is made up of several personal stories told simultaneously – about Jean Vanier, the founder of L’Arche whose voice we hear at the beginning of the film; and about several community members with disabilities: David, Andre, Patrick, Michel and Phillipe.
This format is the perfect way to introduce L’Arche, as its philosophy is based on the fact that everybody has a unique story, each part of which is sacred. The times we have felt loved and appreciated, and the times we have felt hurt and rejected – they have all shaped who we are and we should embrace them. The film responds to this challenge: we hear Jean speak about how the trust his parents showed in him had a profound lifelong effect; and we also hear Michel telling us about his difficult experiences of institutions, which have had an equally significant effect.
The film includes plenty of meal times, which speaks to the importance of the table in L'Arche. The community is built around the table, particularly at supper, when everybody gathers to share a meal, to talk about their day, to listen to each other, to enjoy a joke and to have fun. It is the friendship, as much as the food, that is to be savoured.
Such companionship is the heart of L'Arche – living in community, sharing life together, in both joy and sorrow. It is about mutuality as opposed to competition – Jean speaks about the need always to be better, cleverer, faster than the next person as a weakness in our nature. It divides us and leads us away from what we really need: to be loved and appreciated just as we are, with all of our beautiful flaws.
The film echoes the ethos of L’Arche in advocating the need for authentic relationships. Because weakness and vulnerability are championed in L’Arche, the petty rivalry which dominates so much of ‘ordinary’ society is largely reduced, and people with disabilities are allowed to become our teachers. This is truly where the gospel comes alive. And in times of anguish, the community journeys together, which brings growth and healing, individually and corporately. I remember thinking after the death of one community member, a lady with disabilities, that I had never, in L’Arche or in wider society, seen a community so united, never seen such an outpouring of love for somebody of no ‘worldly’ stature in eulogy after eulogy.
In the later part of the film we find ourselves watching a scene in a L'Arche home. It looks the same as the other French homes that we have been shown, but for one difference: all of the female assistants are wearing a hijab. This is L'Arche Bethlehem. We then see the landscape – dry, sun-bleached mountains, so different from the lush green countryside of France – and other differences soon become obvious. Yet we also see, importantly, the similarities that cut through these differences: our need for love, for community, for companionship. We see that the depth of our nature is the same, no matter where we are.
We see Jean with this Middle Eastern community. We see him sitting outside, contemplating the rocky countryside, its clusters of housing, its biblical landscape, the sound of jets roaring overhead. Jean reflects on the nature of fear, which he says is humanity’s biggest problem, the root of all social ills. The fear that the cry for love that comes from the depth of our being will not be heard, that we will be left alone, gives rise to the need to be better than others, stronger than others. When this need for power manifests itself on a societal or national level, it can lead to great horrors.
L’Arche is a symbol of what is really possible if people open their minds to what is different. It is not all that long ago that to have disabilities, or to have a child with disabilities, was seen as shameful: the world locked up people with disabilities in institutions, separating them from what they needed, which is the same as what all human beings need – one another. But the vision of those who could see past difference and to our shared humanity allowed things to change. Institutions began to close, walls came down and we began to move towards a more inclusive, empathic society in which everyone is valued for their uniqueness and not judged upon difference. Only in this environment can we flourish, can we overcome the fears and negative thinking that isolate people and groups. L'Arche is a small sign of the peace that can be achieved if people would outgrow fear and embrace difference, and this film is a celebration of that achievement.