Summer in the Forest | Docs/ology

Summer in the Forest

Director: Randall Wright

Runtime: 108 minutes

L’Arche is a paradise of sorts. It’s a place where everyone, no matter their physical or mental limitations, belongs and is celebrated for their beauty and worth. 

Summer in the Forest follows the residents of L’Arche, a community that provides a home and jobs to people with developmental disabilities, as they dream, play, build friendships, fall in love, develop hobbies, and discover talents. It’s a stark contrast to the treatment that L’Arche’s residents encounter within broader society as the label of “special needs” is slapped on them and they’re dismissed, often with no regard to their potential as contributing members of community. But at L’Arche, inherent value is recognized in them simply because they are human. 

The dream for L’arche was born from the heart of Jean Vanier and currently boasts 147 locations in 37 different countries. Jean’s story makes up the backbone of the entire documentary, lacing together the stories of L’Arche’s residents with sound clips of heartfelt wisdom, the kind of wisdom that can only come from decades of resilient service and steady sacrifice. 

After serving in the Royal Canadian Navy, Jean resigned to study philosophy but soon felt an urge to pursue a more spiritual calling. That lead him to Trosly-Breuil, France where he established and founded the first L’Arche community after inviting two men with disabilities to leave their institutions and live with him. What began as a simple invitation and a yearning to do something meaningful led to a lifetime of impact for people with disabilities across the globe. 

Throughout the entire documentary, the filmmakers honor the stories of L’Arche residents, stories that are often painful and filled with abuse. But in honoring those stories, painful pasts and current limitations aren’t given the last word. Rather, Randall Wright, director of the critically acclaimed Hockney and Lucian Freud: A Painted Life which won multiple awards, showcases the residents’ daily lives to display the beautiful ordinariness of it all. And in the process, Summer in the Forest reminds us of the simplicity of life—how simple and beautiful it is to love someone, to work with our hands, to play with our friends, and to laugh, learn, and remember.

It seems that the individuals within L’Arche have learned to keep holding onto that simplicity despite hardship, something that many of us have yet to grasp. 

As Jean says, “They’ve taught me so much about freedom and foolishness.”

Perhaps the true beauty of Summer in the Forest is the way Wright and his team adapt editing styles and music choices to portray the unique personality of each person it features. The variations used throughout hint at which character we’re transitioning to, tenderly honoring their stories to an even greater artistic degree.  

And at L’Arche, every story is valued, a simple truth that’s beautifully mimicked in the making of Summer in the Forest

This documentary is not only the story of Vanier, but it is the story of the people Jean has championed, embraced, and given a chance to be meaningful. 

As one young resident said, “I’m not interested in being small.” 

And truly, at L’Arche, no one is. 

— Angelina Danae