Reviewed by Pamela Hutchinson
At a day centre for people with learning difficulties in Bethlehem, 25-year-old Maha wants to drink a cup of tea. In a sustained close-up, while the orchestral score pauses, her twisted fingers struggle to get a grip on the handle or even the cup. When she finally succeeds, the music returns and the camera stays just long enough for her to take a sip, but not long enough for the glow of triumph to become mawkish. It’s a rare moment of suspense in Randall Wright’s tender-hearted documentary Summer In The Forest, about the L’Arche organisation, which provides support and residential care for people like Maha, and its genial founder Jean Vanier. It’s typical of the film’s structure, though, which favours day-to-day detail over context.
Canadian Catholic Vanier talks throughout the film, in a soft and unexpectedly English accent. While he discusses the importance of compassion and tolerance and recalls formative memories, it’s left to a title card to fill in the history of L’Arche. In 1964 a priest working as a chaplain in a house of ‘idiots’ in Trosly-Breuil, near Paris, invited Vanier to visit. He stayed to help, and under his supervision the house grew to become a village, a progressive and understanding place where residents could live independently, work and still receive essential care. Vanier had been shocked by his experiences during World War II: he was a young naval cadet when his father, who was at the liberation of Buchenwald, showed him horrific pictures of the camp. His mission to care for “rejected people” is, it is implied, the legacy of that emotional jolt, drawing a line of comparison between the Nazi death camps and the institutions from which he rescued his first residents.
Vanier is not the only character in the film to be haunted by the war. Michel, born in 1941 and living in the first L’Arche community since he was a young man, has nightmares about bombs falling, and visits a Holocaust memorial. Michel has the mental capacity of a child, but he has a lifetime of disturbing memories, from the war and from the brutal ‘home’ he was in before L’Arche. André, a sweet-natured man and one of Michel’s peers, has only recently admitted to his carers that his father was violent and abusive. He prefers to talk about the the future, and his dream of learning to read and drive.
When the film moves from Trosly-Breuil to Bethlehem, it is with a flourish – the caption announcing the location is delayed. It’s a tactic aimed at impressing the audience with the breadth of Vanier’s mission. Like everything else in this exceptionally moving documentary, it is designed to create more true believers. Vanier says that L’Arche represents not a utopia, but hope, and since its leader is in his late eighties, it will have to continue without him soon.