Author Archives: Summer In The Forest

A Summer In The Forest, by Director Randall Wright

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As a child every few weeks my father would drive the family over to my grandparents for Sunday lunch. Perhaps once a year, May, his aunt, would drop by later in the afternoon. She made a dramatic entrance. She had a disfigured face, strange clothes and was referred to as “simple”. When she entered the room everyone went quiet and my sisters and I were frightened of her. No sooner had she made her entrance she was being ushered out again. All I can remember of her was a gentle muttering and a “hello”.

Nearly every family has a May somewhere in their history. She is the hidden inspiration for this film, but the truth is I remember very little about her, beyond the hello. People with intellectual disabilities are the most rejected people on the planet. There is something deep inside us, inside me, that wants to forget she exists. Reading Jean Vanier’s books helped me start to understand why.

I first met Jean Vanier at St Pancras International, on his way home to a village, Trosly-Breuil, north of Paris. Towering above me like Jacques Tati, he has one of the kindest faces you will ever see. He sat down in a cafe and listened patiently to my idea for a documentary that tried to get to know the intellectually disabled as people. He then invited me to visit his community, on the fringes of an immense ancient forest.

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Jean Vanier is one of the great humanitarians of our time. He saw the value of people with intellectual disabilities and rescued them from lunatic asylums in 1964 and, by proving they could live in an ordinary house, changed the care system for a whole category of human beings throughout the Western world and beyond. The organization he founded, L’Arche, in France, now has 151 communities in 37 countries, including the UK, and is constantly growing. He has authored classic books on the subject, won international awards, such as the Templeton prize, but he is not a household name, unlike his friend Mother Teresa. Jean Vanier’s whole being is focused on the exact opposite of worldly ego. He has given his life to people we judge to be failures. He also suggests that these marginalized people, far from being insignificant and irrelevant, have something to teach us by example: that we need each other; that we must wake up from our fantasy of perpetual individual success. As he says in the film: the powerful lead us to ideology, the weak are in the dirt and lead us to reality. This philosophy he learnt from the pioneers he built his first community with, who are also the subject of the film: Philippe Seux, Patrick Droualt, Michel Petit and Andre Stubenrauch.

Throughout the making of Summer In The Forest, I kept in mind one of Vanier’s key questions: how do you make friends with someone different to you? It is a question Vanier has asked perhaps all his life. He takes it further: how do you reach out to people on the margins, to different social or ethnic groups, and how do you make peace with your enemy? It is a practical question that came out of his experience of the atrocities of the Second World War, especially the attack by the Nazis on the weakest members of society. It is also the question the stars of the film, including others, David Surmaire, Sara Daqdaq and Andre Stubenrauch asked of us: “Will you be my friend?”

To make the film we had to learn to let our barriers down and to give up some of our controlling filmmaking habits. Before we even started Theo Chester the assistant director and I spent weeks getting to know people before the cameras arrived. Eventually we chose the Val Fleuri, a large light-filled house where many of the founding members still live, and where, fifty yards from his modest cottage, Jean, now 88, has most of his meals. Gradually the stars started to chose themselves: Patrick Druault, with his constant request for cigarettes, Andre with his constant complaints, Michel Petit with deep philosophical observations of his own, and David a small young man keen to show us his manliness.

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Throughout the summer our stars took us deep into the forest to ponder, joke and often unexpectedly reveal the stories of their lives by whichever anarchic method seemed most appropriate: psychodrama, memories of wartime experience, confiding in stories of love, or performing comic routines. The elemental forces of the forest, and summer gave these moments the epic backdrop they deserved because behind them lay the immense courage that enabled them to rebuild their lives. The whole film is shot more like a fully orchestrated fiction film to give them the production values they deserve but are rarely given.

As an aside – in these romantic locations two characters made their first steps to fuller independence: Celine falls in love with Fred Dethouy, and they plan to get married. Their story chimed with another personal memory of mine. During my childhood in Leicester, enlightened local education authorities placed physically handicapped students in regular primary school classes. One of those students, with cerebral palsy, became a life long friend. It was only recently she pointed out that I, along with the rest of her friends, had failed to realize that all she wanted from life, like everyone else, was to fall in love. Many of the older people in the film, like my friend, mention marriage as an unattainable dream, but for the next generation growing up in a community of mutual respect finding a partner is a realistic possibility.

Summer In The Forest is about Michel’s courage, Jean’s hope, Maha’s grace, Andre’s longing, Helmi’s loyalty, Celine and Fred’s love; all people who have made a very beautiful world alongside our very broken one. It tries to answer the question “how can you make friends with someone different to you?”, but also why you should try.

When you are with people with intellectual disabilities they teach us by example to drop the guard, and stop pretending. It’s a chance to rediscover ourselves.

– Randall Wright, Director – Summer In The Forest, 2017

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Summer In The Forest – The Reviews Are In!

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“Right now, there doesn’t seem to much goodness in the world so do try to catch Summer In The Forest, an affectionate and joyously uplifting portrait of Jean Vanier… If the individual interviews don’t get you (the life of one contributor, Michel, was brutally limited by a bungled spinal injection he received as a child), then the idyllic-looking summer picnic in the forest that surrounds his original community near Paris will… the sheer humanity – of the man, his staff and his appreciative but quietly liberated charges – absolutely shines through. Viewing should be compulsory.” – Daily Mail

“Tender-hearted… exceptionally moving” – Sight & Sound

“Breathtakingly beautiful… the keynote is joy… It’s a place, a world, a dream of a world, where people who are usually at the bottom of the pile are given a taste of what it’s like when hierarchies of power give way to what you can really only call love… In these dark times, we need to know that there is summer in the forest. We need to know that there is joy and laughter and beauty and kindess and love… If you want to see more beauty and kindness, then go and see this truly important film. It will make you laugh. It will make you cry. And it will remind you of what it really means to be strong.” – Christina Patterson, The Guardian

“Revolutionary… a tender-hearted documentary”Daily Express

 

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“A thoughtful and refined insight… [The community] are not pressed to relay traumatic memories for the camera, but are simply permitted to behave naturally and with a genuine, unfiltered voice of their own, which is captivating to see… uplifting and motivating.” – The Upcoming

 

“This film could not be more timely!” – The Telegraph

 

“Exceptionally Moving” – Sight & Sound

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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.

Summer In The Forest: Progress Report

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These are exciting times.  The UK Picturehouse cinema chain is releasing the film nationally from June 23rd and we will soon be announcing details of the Premier.

On April 24th there will be a major pre-release screening at UN HQ in New York.  The Guest of Honour is the new Deputy Secretary General Amina Mohammed.  We are delighted that she’s coming and hope this sends a strong signal about intellectual disability and the SDGs. The event is co-hosted by the British, Canadian and French Ambassadors, supported by the UN. Please mark-the-date and contact us for tickets.

Abramorama have agreed to handle US distribution, 42 West are delivering US PR while the global communications company HAVAS will be running a social media campaign in France, the UK and North America. Freuds are offering PR around the UK release.

We want this film to make an impact.  If you can help, please get in touch.

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“A beautiful, poetic appreciation of humanity”

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By Donia Fahim, Executive Director of Autism Friendly Spaces.

Today I had the pleasure of attending a prescreening of the documentary “Summer In The Forest”. I was fortunate to have time to speak with the talented director Randall Wright. The film is a beautiful poetic appreciation of humanity and the need for us to look beyond what is different and instead at what brings us together. The film honors the work of the great humanitarian Jean Vanier, but what touched me was the portrayal and window into the lives of people with intellectual disabilities who live in the L’Arche communities that  Vanier founded. The film will be showing in April at the UN. You will laugh and cry. The cinematography is breathtaking! Please see it!  

I loved the film. It’s incredibly beautiful and with so many important take home messages.  I believe the film can be used to support some important dialogue about how we better service, acknowledge, respect & appreciate individuals with intellectual disability in the community. 

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“An astonishingly truthful film that cuts to the heart of what it is to be human.”

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By Rosa Monckton, Founder of Team Domenica.

This is an astonishingly truthful film that cuts to the heart of what it is to be human. It is about the importance of community and the acceptance of those who appear to be different from us, but with whom we share a profound humanity. It is about compassion, tenderness, dedication and understanding. It is a celebration of life and all that it throws at us, and shows the importance of finding joyous moments in everything that we do.  It is about sharing our strengths and weaknesses, but above all it is about the vision of one extraordinary human being – Jean Vanier, who founded l’Arche 50 years ago. This is his film, his story, his life’s journey, and throughout it all his powerful message of love and his extraordinary humility illuminates the way for all of us, if only we could find the courage to follow him.

This is a very important film. It is a film that could, and should, change your life, and the lives of all those people with mental and physical disabilities who lurk in the shadows of mainstream existence. It is a transformative film, and its essence is so simple … the importance of love.

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“If you help people they can do so much more.”

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Wendy, volunteer and film fan 

Wendy saw the private screening at Picturehouse, Piccadilly Circus: “I enjoyed the film. It made me think of how my sister has helped me. How if you help people they can do so much more, that’s what the film showed me”.

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Katie Hollier, Mencap:  “Wendy is my friend. She has mild autism but that is not how I think of her. She is funny, brave, honest and insightful. She volunteers with me and I always enjoy going anywhere with her because I know we will have a good time together.”

“Summer In The Forest shows what life is all about”

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By Katie Hollier, Trustee, Royal Mencap Society.

I’ve worked with people with learning disabilities for over 20 years and this film truly reflects what it is like to do so.

What strikes me as I get older is that we all have gaps somewhere in our psyche, whether it’s an emotional shortfall or something missing in the intellect.  The standard response to this is to find a way of filling that gap, fretting over what is missing.  This is where we can all learn a lot from people with learning disabilities.

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It seems to me that they compensate for what they may not have intellectually or emotionally by focusing on the things that make life enjoyable and worthwhile; relationships, music, cooking, sharing and learning. They rarely focus on political divides, and when they do, it’s generally to offer a view that we should help each other more.

Watching Summer In The Forest alerts you to this in a beautiful way.  It reaches out to one’s sense of what it is to be human and what it is to lead a worthwhile life. It talked to me of how it feels to connect with each other, make peace – and what life is all about.

I especially loved the episodes in the car, where Michel and his carer are laughing and joking, and also sharing some quite serious thoughts about Michel’s past.  It’s a part of the film that really resonates because they interact as equals, learning and teaching each other just by spending time together.  The helpers were like the helpers I work with – engaged and rewarded.

“An extremely important film.”

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By Rachel Campbell-Johnston, Chief Art Critic for The Times.

It must be particularly hard to make a piece of documentary work like this. Nothing dramatic happens, there are no scandalous revelations. There is no climactic moment or, even, the promise of an ending to structure it. And, on top of that, the main protagonist – Jean Vanier – shies away from taking a star role.

He becomes almost a bit-part player in the story of his own life. This fact alone speaks volumes. What we are seeing is the drama of profound humility – and that’s a rare and precious thing in our celebrity-obsessed world.

The film feels in no way dutiful or worthy. It isn’t hammering a campaigning message home. Resisting the temptation to stress painful back-stories, to present subjects as victims or elicit patronising sympathy, it simply allows the people whom it focuses upon to speak for themselves. It gives them a voice. The marginalised are given the dignity which is too often snatched from them. I found that very moving. And I thought it particularly important, too, that the part which support workers play also came into it: not just their gentleness and laugher but their occasional impatience or appearance of boredom. You don’t have to be some kind of saint to live with people with learning difficulties. You just have to be human. It’s simple: but it’s also revelatory.

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It matters that the film has high production values. Those less able than us are not just so easily, but often so wilfully, overlooked. They can feel unapproachable, even scary because we are not used to seeing them. We have swept them aside, hidden them behind the walls or packed them into the minibuses of the specialist organisations that are supposed to care for them. But this film requests that we take a good look. It neither focuses upon, nor shies away from, the facts of physical or mental disability. It asks us simply and frankly – and occasionally very tenderly – to accept those less abled than us as fellow human beings. I have never seen a film of this calibre do something like that before. It is extremely important. Even those who start out by flinching, will end up feeling love. And what more can you ask?