Leisurely and pleasant, “Summer in the Forest” isn’t the usual documentary involving mental illness: It’s neither case-pleadingly issue-oriented nor a portrait of individual struggle and inspiration. Instead, Randall Wright’s feature simply observes the day-to-day lives of several long-term residents at L’Arche, a communal facility in France. Admittedly, the state-run L’Arche is unusual — the closest one might possibly get to this kind of institution in the U.S. would doubtless be an expensive private one. Still, Wright’s film provides considerable insight into how various special-needs conditions might be better handled by society than they are presently. The documentary plays an assortment of week-long and shorter runs around the U.S.
Less than a single lifetime — barely a blip on the historical radar — has passed since the mentally or even physically disabled were commonly shut away in often inhumane asylums designed less for their benefit than simply to hide them from public sight. Jean Vanier was a French-Canadian ex-soldier in the early 1960s when a priest invited him to visit a facility housing such “rejected people” outside Paris. It was a loud, chaotic, sometimes violent environment, but Vanier was moved by the residents and chose to stay. Taking a cue from the progressive spirit of the emerging counterculture era, he pled for release of individuals from prison-like “looney bins” and gradually built up L’Arche, located in the northern French village of Trosly-Breuil.
Providing a model that has thus far been adapted in 35 nations, L’Arche offers people with intellectual disabilities (and often physical ones as well) a place where they needn’t awkwardly fit into mainstream society, but can comprise a society of their own. In terms of housing and employment, independence is encouraged as much as each individual can manage; amorous relationships are allowed, and even marriage occasionally occurs. The location on the edge of a lush forest (beautifully shot by DP Patrick Duval) spurs healthy outdoor activity.
Beyond the kindly, now-octogenarian Vanier himself, Wright trains focus on a cross-section of residents, opting not to spell out their particular clinical diagnoses but letting us get to know them as personalities. Seventy-five-year-old Michel still has nightmares about his childhood during WWII; 10 years his junior, “deeply wounded child” Andre is nonetheless quite the girl-crazy romantic. Gardener Fred and mosaic-maker Celine are a younger couple whose commitment ceremony provides a climactic onscreen event. David, 32, fancies himself a macho strongman (and in the doc’s sole non-naturalistic touch, he’s often soundtracked by a hokey vintage Western theme song).
All of these folks — whose more immediately tangible limitations include everything from paraplegia to partial deafness — are grateful to be here, many having previously suffered bullying or abuse. At about the two-thirds mark, we detour for a spell to Bethlehem, where one of L’Arche’s approximately 150 spinoff facilities was recently founded. This one came about because the dedicatedly pacifist Vanier realized that while Israel takes good care of its own differently abled citizens, there were virtually no such services available in the occupied territories. When he turns up for a visit, he’s hailed less as a mere benefactor than as a savior.
Sans narration (apart from Vanier’s occasional English-language voiceover comments) or much on-screen text, “Summer” doesn’t provide much intel on the history of L’Arche, or how it works; we learn nothing about the professional staffing and other infrastructure required, or how it’s funded. (In most First World nations, the government picks up the tab; elsewhere, private donors play a primary role.) A bit more top-to-bottom institutional insight, a la Frederick Wiseman, would have been welcome.
Still, Wright satisfies in providing a glimpse of an alternative community and lifestyle that appears near-idyllic without being painted in terms that are too sentimental or cute. The sylvan setting (maximized by some verdant drone shots) adds a lyrical air that “Summer” doesn’t oversell, and is complemented by John Harle’s attractive original score.