For centuries, society’s response to people with learning difficulties normally varied between outfight ridicule and locking them up. They were routinely abandoned in asylums and treated to a mix of violence and sinister experimental techniques. Unsurprisingly, as most famously illustrated at Bedlam, the only effect this had was counter-productive. In 1964, Jean Vanier became aware of the plight of thousands incarcerated simply for having developmental difficulties, and decided to do something about it.
Jean invited two men to come and live with his in Trosly-Breuil, France. This subsequently led to the foundation of L’Arche. The rationale behind the organisation is that those with disabilities and their carers live together in homes are apartments. The goal is to build up communities and afford them the independence and support to flourish. Today, L’Arche has 147 not-for-profit communities in 35 countries. Summer in the Forest focuses on the original commune situated on the edge of a forest outside Paris.
Much of the focus of Randall Wright’s documentary is on Jean, who in his eighties still lives in Trosly-Breuil. He’s a sweet and delightful character, full of happiness and caring. We also meet Philippe, Michel, Andre and Patrick, amongst others, and hear their stories. Despite living through traumas, they’ve managed to find a home within the community where they can simply be themselves and live in peace. Indeed, the greatest lesson from Summer in the Forest and L’Arche is that of nurture.
We learn, through conversation, about their pasts and what they aspire to in life. Wright’s camera often meanders or loiters, quietly capturing his subjects. Summer in the Forest never feels exploitative or invasive. There’s a great love, spirit and amity within the commune. This a captured fully in this quiet and thoughtful documentary, which highlights what friendship, support and respect can achieve.
Summer in the Forest is in cinemas from Friday 23 June.