Film and Book Reviews

Taking time to discover who we are meant to be

FilmSummer in the Forest reviewed

By Beryl Rule

Summer in the Forest tells the story of Jean Vanier and the L’Arche Community for the disabled which he founded in France in 1964. A Canadian who had left the navy to study philosophy, Vanier had been searching for a calling, and found it when a priest friend made him aware that people with developmental disabilities were locked away for life and hidden from society. Vanier invited two of the institutionalised men he met to come and live with him, and the community of three soon expanded. He visited hospitals and institutions to find more members, and taking advantage of the long term loans available in the 1960s, began to acquire more houses.

Today there are 149 L’Arche communities in 37 countries, where disabled people, from what Vanier calls “the bottom of the ladder”, live with their carers and enjoy friendship and community life.

The film, directed by Randall Wright, moves very slowly. The camera seems to have all the time in the world to follow two men walking through the forest until they are specks in the distance; or to dwell on a hand reaching out uncertainly to clasp a glass – and how long it takes before fingers close round the stem and the glass is actually gripped and raised. How laboriously people shave, and dress, and make their way to breakfast, and how little seems to be happening!

We want to speed things up, to hear the full story, to know that we are getting somewhere. It takes quite a while to realise we are learning to live at L’Arche community pace, to savour, to contemplate simple pleasures, and to absorb Vanier’s voice-over, gently probing into the question of what it is to be human.

“The weak are in the dirt,” he says, “yet the weak and foolish have been chosen to confound the wise and powerful. The weak lead us to humility, the wise to ideologies.

“People with disabilities have adult bodies but a child-like simplicity. They haven’t cultivated their minds. They are not seeking power, they are seeking freedom, and I have learnt from them.

“Fidelity to the weak is not big things. It’s helping someone to get up; taking them in your arms.”

This is what we see Vanier and his staff doing. They link arms and hold hands as they take community members on walks and excursions – but pay them the respect of asking first. They listen to what those from “the bottom of the ladder” have to say, never patronisingly but always with interest.

“You are good,” one man says to his carer, “like the Queen of England,” and the carer picks up the theme and they talk on happily for a while about the Queen, trying to work out her age.

Speaking gently with a severely disabled man, or announcing, to a delighted community, the engagement of two young l’Arche residents, or accompanying Patrick, “a loner” to coffee, Vanier’s face, seamed with 87 years of living, is transfigured by love.

“Love is a meeting – a coming together in a mutual presence,” he says. “Presence is taking time – ‘wasting time’ – to become who we’re called to be.”

 

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