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‘Summer in the Forest’ traces the founding of L’Arche by Jean Vanier

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A desire to explore his feelings on his experience with a great aunt who had an intellectual disability, Randall Wright, a director of more than 20 major documentaries, made “Summer in the Forest,” about the L’Arche community founded by Jean Vanier in 1964.

“We all need each other. We all need to accept who we actually are and it’s this that is so extraordinary about L’Arche.” Randall Wright

Vanier saw the harsh treatment of individuals with intellectual disabilities at asylums. He invited two of the residents to live with him to begin the L’Arche community to bring together people with and without intellectual disabilities to live together and support each other.

Because Wright’s aunt wasn’t included in the family, he “assumed there must be some danger around her or some sort of problem.”

“I had always been frightened of people with mental handicaps,” he said. “About 10 years ago, I decided to investigate her and investigate these feelings. I thought they might be an interesting basis for a film, but I had no idea what that film would be.”

The film was endorsed by Pope Francis, who sent a personal note to the producers. “His Holiness Pope Francis wishes to affirm his warm support of all initiatives to foster and integrate at the heart of our societies the mentally disabled.”

Wright was introduced to Vanier’s work while filming a documentary on Sister of Notre Dame de Namur Wendy Beckett, a television art critic in the United States and abroad. Other coincidences brought things together. A friend managed one of the L’Arche communities, le Val Fleury in Trosley-Breuil, France. “We had access to my friend’s expertise and then out of the blue Vanier came to London,” said Wright. “He’s a very fascinating person so I wanted to find out more about his ideas.”

The documentary was filmed at L’Arche communities in France and in Bethlehem. It follows a handful of members. Wright said he didn’t pick the specific members.

“It’s more that they chose themselves,” he said. “They were people that were ready to reveal things about themselves. Bit by bit it became obvious who they were. All the stories are told by the people themselves in unexpected, unusual ways. There’s no commentary other than the thoughts of Vanier.”

Wright said filming took about nine months. He first spent time staying in the community before bringing the film crew.

“We went in thinking we were being super sensitive. The thing that was extraordinary was that immediately as we stepped through the door we were trusted,” said Wright. “The people there wanted to be our friends. The difficulty more was were we willing to be theirs?”

Wright is used to negotiating with people and getting their trust to do certain things. This experience was different. “In this case, I couldn’t really ask them to do anything. I couldn’t direct them, but what I could try to do, I realized after a while, was to be their friend, and ask them if there’s anything that they wanted to do that related to some of the things I was asking of them.”

That tactic worked. “Bit by bit, I let go, gave in, allowed myself to stop being a director and just accept whatever came along. In a way, that is why it was such a long process. It took a little while for the really personal experiences to manifest themselves.”

Wright said the film is the story of the pioneers of L’Arche.

“Vanier is the hub of the film. It’s his world and his ideas we are looking at,” said Wright. “Michel, Patrick and Andre were among the men who were the first generation with intellectual disabilities to emerge from what were in effect prisons, really unpleasant institutions, hidden from society. They gradually introduce us in the film to the younger generation.”

The film is about the older and younger generations finding their security and their home but with different degrees of confidence, Wright said. “The first generation is recovering from their awful experiences,” he said. “The second generation is much more confident to lead their lives in the way they wanted to do. They were much more confident to find someone to love. A lot of the film has this as the theme.”

Wright found the experience healing and it had an impact on his faith. “In one strong way it very much changed the way I see Jesus,” he said. “I think the Jesus of the poor is not the Jesus I was taught about when I was growing up.”

Wright learned from Vanier’s encouragement about going into the place that is the dark side of ourselves and facing ourselves.

“We all need each other. We all need to accept who we actually are and it’s this that is so extraordinary about L’Arche,” said Wright. “It’s a place where you encounter the other but what you really are doing is encountering yourself.”

If you go


See “Summer in the Forest” April 27-May 3 at West End Cinema, 2301 M St. N.W., Washington. Go to summerintheforest.com.



© Arlington Catholic Herald 2018