“I think that we human beings have a compass, a mysterious compass, which leads us to do what is right.” –Jean Vanier
Hearing the quote above–which begins Summer in the Forest, a documentary about L’Arche, founded by Jean Vanier–I was afraid the film itself would be overly pat and syrupy. I was wrong.
When four men labeled as “idiots” were confined to a life of imprisonment in asylum-like institutes in the 1960’s, a young Canadian philosopher named Jean Vanier secured their release and created a space for them to live. The L’Arche community is a place of residence for those with developmental disabilities and their caretakers. It became a movement and has spread widely, with chapters currently existing in 37 countries. The original L’Arche in France, the setting of this documentary, operates to this day, and Vanier still regularly visits.
The striking power of this documentary doesn’t lie in the feel-good formula that it sets up with the beginning quote, but in its willingness to follow many of the residents in their daily activities. The movie gives the residents a face and a voice. For an often hidden and voiceless population, this story-telling decision is profound.
One of the most powerful scenes in the documentary takes place in a quiet room in L’Arche.
“Dearest Sebastian,” Vanier says, to a 23-year-old man in a steeply reclined power wheelchair, “you are beautiful. Very, very beautiful.”
The man in the wheelchair is nonverbal, only able to converse with Vanier in grunts and in movements of his wide and crossed eyes. Yet Vanier understands him.
“Oui….oui…..oui,” Vanier agrees, as he continues to talk to Sebastian about Sebastian’s upcoming visit with his own parents.
I doubt that Sebastian is regularly able to engage with someone who has the ability and the will to understand him. And I doubt that Sebastian is regularly, if ever, called beautiful. Most people, myself included, see beauty in much narrower, much shallower ways. Vanier helps to remind us, in this scene, that real beauty grows in connection with another person. Real beauty is recognized in relationship, even though it may be difficult. And I would say therein lies real love.
Many times throughout the film, the camera lingers on a scene for a beat much longer than I expected, despite there being no significant action. We watch a couple of the residents as they eat dinner together. I expected something insightful or dramatic to happen. Yet the dinner progressed with no sweeping action and no breakthrough dialogue; the scene just drudged on, despite my impatience.
Then, about halfway through the movie, when one resident of L’Arche was shown walking down a staircase, painfully slowly and holding on to the wall; I blurted out loud “I know how that feels.” As someone with a physical disability, the sense of connection was striking. Seeing someone who showed similar signs of struggling with stairs, I finally understood the reason for the lingering shots. This struggle–this frustration–is inescapable to those of us with disabilities. By strategically peppering uncomfortably long scenes throughout, the filmmakers invite viewers to enter the lives of the people on the screen more fully, more realistically.
Seeing people with disabilities on-screen is always a gamble for me: will the disabled be used as static characters who only exist to pull the heart-strings of able-bodied people? The sad truth is we –people with disabilities– are barely ever the heroes of our stories; we inspire other people to achieve their goals. Stella Young says in her TED talk about living with disability, “I’m not your inspiration, thank you very much.” People with disabilities have stories to tell, and not just to make other people feel better about themselves.
Probably the greatest strength of the documentary Summer in the Forest is its fearlessness in thrusting the disabled population from the background to the role of the hero. In another documentary close to my heart, The Ataxian, a friend of mine who shares my genetic disorder is the main character. The film shows his struggles and his successes from his own perspective. He is not the wise disabled friend imparting knowledge to the main character. He laughs, jokes, cries, struggles, and succeeds in his goal to ride a recumbent trike across the US in nine days in the world’s toughest bike race.
That people matter and have a story to tell, even though they have a disability–Summer in the Forest breaks no ground with that epiphany. Yet, it’s a hopeful step rarely taken in film, and it is orchestrated beautifully.
Seeing someone else’s weaknesses and challenges can be incredibly difficult. I would prefer to recognize only the attractive parts of others –their humor, their kindness, their intelligence. But that’s incomplete. Only by wholly seeing someone–their strengths, weaknesses, abilities, and disabilities–can we recognize them as fully human. And only in that recognition can we really begin to love one another.
The documentary Summer in the Forest was a perfect way for me to align my mysterious inner compass, and to recognize that accepting others –both in their strengths and in their disabilities– is the beginning of compassion.
Summer in the Forest begins screening in select theaters soon. For a list of venues and cast and crew information, click here.
Matt Lafleur is Sick Pilgrim’s managing editor and a FARA ambassador.