The Warmth and Light of ‘Summer in the Forest’

Jean Vanier

by Mike Hertenstein

The new documentary about Templeton Award–winning humanitarian and communitarian Jean Vanier embodies its themes in ways that are almost sacramental.

In 1964, Vanier learned that thousands of people with intellectual disabilities  were institutionalized and labeled as “idiots.” The young philosopher felt called to secure the release of two men so that they might come live with him in a small home in Trosly-Breuil, France. He initially thought he would act as their caretaker, but he quickly realized that his role was to simply be present with them.

Ultimately, that small beginning led to the founding of nearly 90 L’Arche communities around the world in which people with disabilities and those who are “abled” live together. They are based on the philosophy that strength and joy are found through weakness and vulnerability with others.

Summer in the Forest surprises viewers with an oblique and layered approach that pulls us into an engagement that is appropriate both to the material and to the philosophy of Vanier.

Vanier, now 89, is a winsome presence whose joy explains much about the success of L’Arche and the consensus view that its founder will be remembered as a saint.

Of course, depictions of saints can easily fall into sanctimonious kitsch, as Thomas Merton has written: over-reverence tends to deflate credibility in inverse proportion to the inflation of holiness. Yet Vanier immediately wins us over. It helps that the film keeps him almost in the background as a voice-over dispensing quiet wisdom, or just another (very tall and lanky) community member horsing around at the table. As we meet other members of the community, Vanier’s off-screen voice offers deep insight into each individual, their strengths and fragilities, that suggests the perspective of a loving divinity.

Another hazard of films like this is the especially egregious sin of treating the subjects as objects, i.e., as means to some end—even just telling a story or making a point. Exploitation is a risk of films that feature disabled people.

In this case, the filmmaker takes the long way around. The approach is akin to the incarnate style of neo-realism, which treats subjects as ends valued in themselves. The pacing and perspective may reveal our own impatience for results and information, instead coaxing us to relax and “waste” time with the residents of L’Arche.

That’s another hazard of films about saints and social concerns—the warm glow of vicarious participation we feel at the closing credits that send us out the door with self-satisfaction.

There’s a subtext here. Early on, we follow a resident and assistant into the woods, which seems significant, given the title. The scene leads to a memorial to the last trainload of deportees sent to Nazi death camps from that site.

The residents of L’Arche would have been on the first trainloads. The film ends, of all places, in a L’Arche community in occupied Palestine.  That provocative juxtaposition keeps the film real as it delivers a message that might otherwise tempt us to congratulate ourselves just for watching.

Indeed, that’s another hazard of films about saints and social concerns—the warm glow of vicarious participation we feel at the closing credits that send us out the door with self-satisfaction. Romanticizing remains a risk here—not just of the residents and Vanier, but community itself.

There’s nothing like actual community to dispel that myth. I live in the intentional community Jesus People USA, and I once heard Jean Vanier begin a talk to a group of us living there with the line, “Isn’t living in community terrible?”

It brought down the house and won him instant respect. Brokenness is, well, broken. In this film, we don’t see much brokenness among the “abled” people in L’Arche houses. We also don’t learn much about what makes Vanier tick, his own brokenness, or how he became Jean Vanier.

Still, in the space of Summer in the Forest, we do enter into the perspective of just being with broken people and valuing them for who they are. That is no small thing. If only we might take that outlook with us out the door and back into the world.

The sobering touchstone of Nazism left me reflecting on how Nazis had idealized community and pursued a vision of wholeness by excluding—and, ultimately, eliminating—broken people. The true way to wholeness, paradoxically, may be learning to live without it.

Screenings are scheduled throughout the country in the coming months. See the Summer in the Forest website for dates as well as information about booking the film.


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