SUMMER IN THE FOREST Review: Like Mainlining Human Decency

To be human means to look for patterns, to repeat, repeat, repeat until we find a sense of mastery, or at least a sense of comfort, in whatever it is we’re doing. Performing a repetitive act eases our anxieties and ailments. Do it long enough and you achieve a cooling sensation as a zen outlook overtakes you. It’s quiet, it’s confident, it’s decent, it’s human.

Photo credit: Summer in the Forest/IMDb

Repetitive tasks take up much of the day at the various L’Arche facilities around the world—there are 149 such communities in 37 countries. At L’Arche, people with various developmental and physical disorders live in something similar to a pre-industrial commune where economics and the desire for power are rendered moot, says L’Arche head honcho Jean Vanier, the subject of Randall Wright’s latest documentary, Summer in the Forest.

There is a lot of pain on display in the documentary, both ongoing and remembered. Patient-residents with speech troubles struggle to find the words to describe their lives, others are tethered to motorized wheelchairs while their muscles clench and contort them into unfathomably uncomfortable positions, still others recall abuse at fascistic facilities that were open only a few decades ago, and Jean himself reflects again and again on his time spent fighting the Nazis as a 13-year-old immigrant from Canada who signed up with the British military out of a sense of duty. “Cows are just there, munching away, but we humans are anguished,” Jean says.

But neither Jean nor any of the countless people he’s housed over the decades succumb to the anguish or wallow in it. “I’m living with people who are fragile, but we’re all fragile, let’s face it,” Jean says. “But we’ve found ways of hiding our fragility.”

So they get to work. They gather around long cafeteria-style tables with art supplies to weave trinkets and express themselves through their creations. They do this together, where they are forced to learn more about each other, to talk, to laugh, to comfort, to fall in love, to build a community worth living in. They are not tucked away from society, for they take trips to town squares and historical sites to shop and meet with local friends and family. Jean, and Wright’s camera, never make the residents or the viewer feel that these people are lesser in the way that our society has for so long. “The big human problem is just to accept all people as they are,” Jean says.

Jean and Wright amplify these folks’ personhood to craft a hopeful humanism that comes to feel like you’re mainlining human decency with each passing second. It’s exhilarating.

But it’s also calming. Thanks to spending his teenage years seeing the worst that humanity has to offer, Jean has understandably grown fixated on how people use and abuse and pursue power, often with catastrophic results. At one point near the film’s end, Jean speaks from a serene, sun-drenched park, like some modern Plato, having made as much peace as he can with the trauma of his youth to achieve a detached-but-loving viewpoint. In full paragraphs, his words become a thesis for the work he does, while Wright cuts to Jean and L’Arche residents in Bethlehem wandering the streets, meeting shop owners, telling locals that they “have a kind face,” and smiling—lots of smiling.

“You see, the wise and the powerful are up in their heads, whereas the ‘weaker’ are in the dirt,” Jean says, his voice slipping between the accents of the three countries he’s called home, Canada, England, and France. “The ‘weak’ lead us to reality whereas the so-called wise and powerful lead us to ideologies. But for peace, it’s to accept weakness. Weakness then becomes the transmission of a cry, and the end of the cry is a coming together.”

And so Jean comes together with his residents, and we, the audience, join them. It’s a celebration, an engagement party for two residents, full of jokes, friends playfully pushing friends into a pool, and lots and lots of commitment to one another.

That commitment is not necessarily inherent, although every person is imbued with the desire to belong. It grows from familiarity, community building, and plenty of facetime. It comes from repeating tasks together, locking eyes, and understanding who the person sitting across from you truly is inside. It comes, as Jean says, not from seeking power, but from seeking friendship.

Director: Randall Wright
Available in limited release now
SUMMER IN THE FOREST Review: Like Mainlining Human Decency SUMMER IN THE FOREST Review: Like Mainlining Human Decency Reviewed by Rob Samuelson on Friday, March 23, 2018 Rating: 5
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