Until the 1960s, when many countries rethought the system of institutionalization, many of the so-called homes that housed people with disabilities served to hide their patients from mainstream society. At worst, they were abused and, often, at best, just ignored.
In France in that decade, Canadian Jean Vanier secured the release of several patients from an institution for “idiots,” establishing a commune at the edge of a forest near Paris, called L’Arche (now a global effort). In Summer in the Forest, his documentary on the place, Randall Wright lingers there.
It’s quite a story, one that, like all good stories, turns out to have meaning for anyone. “We’re all fragile,” Vanier says. “The big human problem is to accept all people as they are.… So often we’re controlled by fear. Fear then becomes anguish, and anguish then becomes anger. If you move from anger to compassion, the road then becomes fidelity to the weak. It’s a long road and that’s what people have difficulty with.”
As if to demonstrate how literally true that is, Wright takes his time, meandering somewhat, and sparing little. It can take quite a while for a L’Arche resident to peel away a yogurt lid, speak a sentence, or recount an anecdote. At this point in the 21st century, when communication is usually brief and instantaneous, the film may test your patience.
But it’s a privilege to get to know its subjects, which in a way includes its audience. “What I found here in L’Arche is for everybody,” Vanier says. “It’s for all of us, it’s about all of us.”
Summer in the Forest
Directed by Randall Wright
Opens March 23, Village East Cinema
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This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on March 21, 2018