In 1964, Canadian-born Jean Vanier visited a psychiatric hospital near Paris. That encounter would change his life, as well as the lives of thousands with intellectual and physical disabilities, and later inspire a beautiful and critically-acclaimed new film, “Summer in the Forest.”
Vanier was deeply touched by the plight of the people he found in the hospital, who were often labeled “retards” or “idiots” and locked away and forgotten. Leaving behind a life of privilege, he moved with two intellectually disabled men into a house in Trosly-Breuil, a village at the edge of a beautiful forest north of Paris.
Together, they created L’Arche, French for “The Ark,” which brings together people with and without intellectual and physical disabilities to live in community. Today, approximately 5,000 people with disabilities live in 147 L’Arche communities in 35 countries.
“Summer in the Forest,” which will release domestically in New York City on March 23 in honor of World Down Syndrome Day (3/21), is a story of peace, hope and love. Vanier, now 89, still lives in Trosly-Breuil, where most of the film is set.
In 2015, he received the Templeton Prize, first awarded to Mother Teresa in 1973, for his exceptional contributions in the spiritual realm, this being the most recent a long line of honors and awards.
He sees the Kingdom of God in the people at L’Arche. ”The mystery of Jesus is hidden in weak people, fragile people,” he says.
Such people are four of the main characters in the film, Michel, tormented by memories of World War II; Andre, desperate for a date; David, who fancies himself a superhero and wants to save the world; and Patrick, who aspires to be an artist.
“These are people at the bottom of the ladder of social status,” Vanier says. “They have taught me about what it means to be a human person – to learn to love and let the barriers down.”
Michel, who was beaten at the institution where he lived previously, bears testimony to that. “Jean Vanier is a man who loves us very much. He loves me very much. He taught me about calm.”
The movie is a tapestry of poignant, interconnecting stories. In one especially memorable scene, Vanier comforts Sebastian, a young man with multiple disabilities who can’t speak or move his limbs, after a medical exam. “Dearest Sebastian, you are beautiful, very, very beautiful,” Vanier says.
Sebastian’s face lights up with a smile.
“Summer in the Forest,” directed by Randall Wright, premiered in the United Kingdom in the summer of 2017 to glowing reviews. It will release in select U.S. theaters in March. For more information on theaters, please visit www.summerintheforest.com.