Film Review: Summer in the Forest

Modest, intimate documentary about L'Arche, an international organization for the disabled, and its founder Jean Vanier.
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What is the best way to care for people with Down syndrome? That's the question behind Summer in the Forest, an upbeat, inspiring documentary that focuses on Jean Vanier, a humanitarian whose work remains too little known.

A Canadian by birth, Vanier left the Navy in 1950 to study philosophy. After becoming aware of mistreatment in institutions, he founded L'Arche, a community for the disabled in a village near Paris, in 1964. Now an international federation, L'Arche encompasses 149 communities in 37 countries.

Director Randall Wright is more interested in the people living at the community in Trosly-Breuil than he is about explaining the organization or how it operates. That information is available in any L'Arche fundraising brochure. Instead, his documentary concentrates on individuals who have been exiled from society. Some arrived broken, after years of abuse. Some newcomers have more supportive families.

How the staff and Vanier deal with their residents is a deeply moving study in patience and tolerance. Vanier, the author of 30 books and the recipient of numerous awards, is an inspiration. Almost ninety, he still dispenses care, showing remarkable empathy for the residents.

Summer in the Forest is an immersive work whose imagery verges on the uncomfortable. The fear that the documentary may be exploiting the residents is offset by their participation in the filming. At times they beckon to the camera, pointing out what they want the crew to see.

Vanier at one point travels to a L'Arche community in Bethlehem, one of the few places where Israelis and Palestinians meet on an equal basis. During a party, DP Patrick Duval focuses on Maha L'Maya, who at 24 can barely walk or eat. The camera watches closely as she slowly, haltingly lifts a teacup to her lips, a glimpse into how difficult her life is.

Summer in the Forest doesn't romanticize the residents. Michel, who endured World War II as well as years in institutions, reminds viewers that "life is a mystery, but a painful one." But the documentary also doesn't dwell on tantrums, depressions, tears or anger.

Instead, it offers Vanier, whose mystifying peace and confidence extend to all around him. What sets him apart is not just how he comforts the ill and wounded, but how he embraces a philosophy of acceptance: "The weak and foolish have been chosen to confound the wise and powerful."

Click here for cast and crew information.