Jean Vanier Film: Summer in the Forest

When Jean Vanier died earlier this year, a significant 90 year life had made quite an impact on the world, the Catholic Church, Christians and compassionate people all around the world, 147 l’Arche communities in 35 countries.

Summer In the Forest is a documentary filmed in 2016, released in 2018 in Europe but available in Australia for special screenings with a wider release later in the year. It is not the only Jean Vanier film. There is a French documentary, Jean Vanier, Le sacrament de la tendresse (Frederique Bedos, 2019).

One of the great advantages of Summer in the Forest is that Jean Vanier not only appears but also does a great deal of the voice-over, memories of his early life and the influence of his father, Governor General of Canada, and the Navy, his first encounter with the mentally disabled, the first community, and his reflections on simplicity, respect for everyone, his spirituality. Patients moved out of institutions which were prison-like, humiliating, dropping barriers, encouraging celebration and laughter, becoming family.

Most of this film takes place in in France, where L’Arche began, Trosly-Breuil,  but there is an excursion to the occupied territories of Palestine in the second part of the film, Jean Vanier visiting the L’Arche community in Bethlehem.

Vanier was a big man, physically, complete life dedication, spiritually. But, he was also very genial, down-to-earth, patient. We see him accompanying a range of men and women in France, visiting and supporting in Bethlehem. As we accompany the communities in France, it is something of a jolt to be transferred to Palestine, many images of the wall separating Palestine from Israel, some of the L’Arche community living at home and getting ready to go to the community house, getting to know more people with different styles of life, music, dance, exuberance.

Accompaniment is a keyword. There is no goal to be reached. Rather, those who live in the communities are listened to, meals shared, work shared, happy and patient conversations, realities of work and play day-by-day. Vanier notes we are all fragile but many of us hide this. Those who live in the communities have not cultivated the mind or the superiority of knowledge but seek friendship and family.

We also see the presence and work of so many of the volunteers – and the challenge of making small talk, listening, alert to cues for responding and communicating.

Vanier says that L’Arche is not a Utopia, but a hope, of presence, taking time, wasting time apparently, but a place where we can be what we are called to be.

Which means that this film is offering possibilities for its audience to share Jean Vanier’s perspective and to accompany several characters throughout the film, sometimes waking up with them, shaving and dressing, going to meals, travelling with them, listening to their confidences, the memories, their hopes. One elderly man, Michel, is prominent, victim of a medical accident when young, with strong memories of the war and its impact, visiting the war cemetery. Andre is also an old man, as is Patrick, Andre not the greatest communicator but with a great friend, Wadid, whose house he visits to share a meal.

On the other hand, there are quite a number of young people, the exuberant David, a 33-year-old Downs Syndrome man who works with a group assembling cardboard boxes. He also enjoys dancing as well as playing with another young Downs friend, he imitating a dog, she purring like a cat. And we accompany the group at a picnic in the countryside. Finally, there is an outdoor community celebration as to young people become engaged.

The Jean Vanier we see is a man in his later 80s, still healthy, but with two hearing aids, a man who had Navy experience, but whose heart was touched, continually touched for over 70 years of compassionate service.

The surroundings of the L’Arche communities is a forest, beautiful shots of summer, the trees, the green, and atmosphere of both growth and fulfilment, beautiful aerial drone photography.

With the availability of Summer in the Forest in Australia towards the end of 2019, there could be many opportunities for parishes, socially-compassionate groups, those who want to appreciate Jean Vanier better and have an opportunity to accompany him with Michel, Andre, David and the others.


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