By Patrick Duval, Cinematographer
When I assembled my camera and tripod outside La Val Fleuri in Trosly-Breuil for the first time I wondered if I’d have sufficient perception to film the L’Arche residents in a way that would do them justice, knowing a camera only records the surface appearance of subjects before it.
That thought evaporated the moment I set up our first widescreen frame in the refectory. Here were individuals, assembling for breakfast in the way most families do, in dribs and drabs, grunting good mornings, making hot drinks, pouring fruit juice, choosing cereal, some talking, some looking out at what the day might bring. We stood back and filmed.
Before Summer In The Forest, my only experience of people with intellectual difficulties was occasionally passing an individual on a high street somewhere looking for sustenance or friendship. My vision of the institutions charged with looking after such people was largely informed by films such as Fred Wiseman’s ‘Titicut Follies’ and Milos Foreman’s ‘ One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’.
In our early research, we became aware of the challenges associated with observational filmmaking in institutions wary of a potentially intrusive process. However Jean Vanier’s philosophy in setting up L’Arche and his openness to Randall’s approach took the lid off a conventional film study of the organisation and we felt challenged by Jean’s invitation to “embrace the craziness”.
Quite quickly our characters started to emerge, Michel with his direct gaze and gentlemanly handshake, Patrick with his easy shuffle and spontaneous chuckle, Andre, the resident Yves Montant, exhaling disapproving sighs and eating for France. Soon I realised the decision to use a wide aspect ratio (2.39:1) gave not only a similar dignity and visual weight to our subjects as to a film actor, as we’d planned, but that it also gave space for us to show two or three of these individuals in their own worlds within the same frame. The camera becomes less obtrusive and the audience more free to make their own connections between the individuals they see.
The more we filmed the more I learned. After watching our peculiar filmmaking rituals, the residents began to trust and even humour us. Morning greetings and evening farewells became more than just formalities and when we returned on later visits we were treated like old friends.
Sebastian is almost totally paralysed yet after filming him for a while I realised he was following my movement out of one eye. I leant down, not knowing how close he could see, and held his proffered hand, aware of a strong sense of calm and human connection despite his apparent disability.
The picnic, which happened at impressively short notice, was one of the most sublime cinematic situations you could ask for. A group of eccentric friends pile into a minibus and take off to the woods with games, a picnic and a walk thrown in. Interesting discussions often happen while people walk together.
Before we filmed in Bethlehem, Palestine seemed like another world to me – poor, strife-torn and oppressed and we were reminded of those issues whenever we ventured out from the Ma’an. But what shouldn’t have surprised me was how the bond of the Shebab (members) overcame the gloom of the Palestinian situation and the added pressures on households with disability.
The kindness, friendship and humanity dished out to us by the members and helpers at L’Arche in the course of making this film changed my whole way of thinking about people who live with the label “disabled” or in the not too distant past, Idiots.
Patrick Duval studied Fine Art, then took film at the RCA. He has shot many Art documentaries, independent features, TV drama, comedy and commercials. He jointly won the Evening Standard Award and Valladolid Film Festival in Cinematography for Terence Davies’ Distant Voices/Still Lives and shot the Prix Italia-nominated I’ll Be Your Mirror.