Jean Vanier (center) in Summer in the Forest

Watching Summer in the Forest, a new documentary that screens this coming week at the Gene Siskel Film Center, I discovered a new hero in Jean Vanier. An author, philosopher, and administrator, Vanier founded L’Arche, a community based outside of Paris for individuals with developmental disabilities, in the 1960s and continues to manage it today. His goal for L’Arche was to create an inclusive community where anyone could live a meaningful life, and Summer in the Forest shows multiple residents as they socialize, work, (or, in some cases, enjoy their retirement), and reflect on what it means to be happy. The film also presents Vanier, now in his late 80s, as he reflects on his long, productive life. He comes across as compassionate, wise, and heroically patient, having devoted decades to helping people. Vanier also seems to have preserved a childlike sense of joy—he claims that play is an important part of his work—and his ability to derive pleasure from everyday moments conveys an enlightened perspective.

Summer in the Forest invites viewers to share in Vanier’s viewpoint; it’s a calm, reflective film that aims to put you in a good mood. I was genuinely glad to learn about Vanier and the people he works with, though I found the filmmaking to be overbearing and sentimental. The film poses a challenge to the critical spectator: how to evaluate a work that’s so inspiring in content but so uninspired in its form? I wholeheartedly recommend the film as an introduction to Vanier and as a document of commendable practices in the field of social work. It succeeds as a public service announcement, and maybe that’s enough. We still have a long way to go in terms of creating an inclusive society for all, and thinking about Vanier and his achievements is to consider what that society might look like.

I don’t think Vanier’s philosophy requires a hard-sell approach, which is where I differ from Randall Wright, who directed Summer in the Forest. Wright dresses up his profiles of Vanier and the residents of L’Arche with lots of postcard-ready images of nature and a syrupy score that tells you how to feel. These elements distract from the hard truths of Vanier’s work, such as having to manage behavior disorders (common among individuals with developmental disabilities) or learning to wait as individuals with profound disabilities struggle with tasks that might take others very little time to complete. Summer in the Forest devotes relatively little time to the challenges of social work; one suspects that Wright feared that including such details would alienate viewers. When compared with a genuinely challenging work of art like Frederick Wiseman’s documentary Multi-Handicapped (1986), Wright’s film seems timid and overly genteel.

Summer in the Forest

Still, the remarkable facts of Vanier’s life shine through Wright’s treatment. In brief, Vanier came to found L’Arche after a brief career in the English Navy and a period of teaching philosophy. Working with a socially minded French priest named Thomas Philippe, he developed a community where individuals with developmental disabilities live (and in many cases work) with as much or as little assistance as they need. The liberal approach, which involves much socializing and interactions with people in the surrounding towns, inspired the creation of nearly 150 like-minded communities in almost 40 countries. (Summer in the Forest briefly shows Vanier visiting a sister community in Palestine, where he’s treated more like a friend than an esteemed guest.) Vanier has also published a few dozen books on philosophical and theological subjects, but he seems humble in spite of his achievements. In one of the movie’s most provocative scenes, Vanier reflects on the nature of power—he feels that people sacrifice their ability to empathize in the pursuit of power, and that in a better world we’d all regard each other as equals. His greatest achievement, the movie suggests, is that he’s managed to live so long by this philosophy.

The proof of Vanier’s achievement lies in the meaningful lives he’s inspired at L’Arche. Summer in the Forest ranges wildly in tone in its depiction of the residents; some of these passages are understated and moving, while others are unbearably sentimental. Nonetheless, they all show people with moderate to severe disabilities enjoying their lives and demonstrating self-awareness and self-determination. In one of the most effective sequences, an elderly resident goes to walk in a park and visit a memorial to French soldiers who died in a Nazi concentration camp. The resident reflects thoughtfully on history and his duty in remembering it; his observation mirrors something Vanier says in an interview about volunteering to assist concentration camp survivors as a teenager. Seeing evidence of the worst of humanity can inspire one to be a better person, and if nothing else, Summer in the Forest provides a testament to people who have been so inspired.   v