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Film Review: Summer in the Forest

The story of how this film is made starts with Jean Vanier, the founder of L’Arche, agreeing to give a talk for the benefit of the L’Arche community in Norwood. It’s a good place to start because the story of L’Arche is the story of Jean Vanier.
The documentary, in the main, films the residents living in Trosly-Breuil, in France. The audience is given a brief history of how it started and we are treated to just over an hour of learning about people who live there. The first resident we are introduced to is Michael, pictured performing his morning routine. This level of intimacy straight away feels intrusive and it is only when the director assures us that it was Michael’s express wish that they film it do I feel better. The film ambles along, introducing us to more residents and gently allows them to explain themselves to the audience, sometimes in response to questions from the assistants, sometimes in their musings about each other.
The familiar scene of people gathered round a dining table breaks up the quieter moments, reminding us that it is very much a family we are watching. Throughout it all Jean Vanier features, quietly exuding love and calm, equally at home breakfasting with the guests in the lively dining room as giving a soft explanatory voiceover for the benefit of the viewer.
The film does not dwell on how L’Arche started, other than to give a brief explanation that Jean Vanier found out about the lives of the many disabled people living in poor conditions across France and couldn’t ignore it. Instead, we learn about the story of the man who started it. Very early in the film he talks about the ‘instinct of humanity for peace and universal justice’ and throughout in his voiceovers he talks about the same values. Peace, acceptance, hope, and joy are expressed in various way by Vanier, the residents and assistants.
One of the most striking details about the film which I only discovered afterwards when I spoke to the director, Randall Wright, was the amount spent on sound recording and music. Often, films about disabled people are made with little budget for sound or music. As a result, subjects are not given their own voice because of poor quality of audio equipment. By focusing on such a technical detail, the film was an authentic representation of L’Arche because everyone was given their own voice. Recorded in perfect clarity and set to a beautiful score, we heard the residents talking about their lives without explanation or interruption.
I would absolutely recommend the film for anyone who wants to know about Jean Vanier. The film is indeed a journey of getting to know someone, and by getting to know Jean Vanier we are led to an understanding of L’Arche that can only be reached with the knowledge of how much of his heart is in these communities. It also offers a platform to people with disabilities of all kinds that is rarely seen on the big screen. I left the showing not just feeling warm and fuzzy, but with a determination to be more understanding of the power dynamics that govern our society and so often impact our relationships for the worse.
The film was released on 24th June. A list of cinemas where it is being shown can be found at www.summerintheforest.com. There is also a companion booklet available to download on the Damaris Media website http://filmblog.damaris.org/summer-in-the-forest-lose-yourself-to-find-your-heart/

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