Documentary brings intellectually and developmentally disabled up close and personal to viewers
There’s a scene in Randall Wright’s new documentary about Jean Vanier, the founder of the L’Arche communities for the disabled, where a young woman is struggling to take a sip of tea. Vanier is visiting one of the 151 communities that have been established in 37 countries. This one is in Bethlehem, where residents are fashioning lambswool into cute Nativity sets. The 10 or 15 residents who live there are taking a break, enjoying a pita bread snack. The tea is served in clear glass mugs.
The camera follows the young woman’s gaze down to the tea on the table in front of her and then just remains focused on the glass mug as she slowly rotates it. The woman seems to have a tremor and spends great effort in bringing it to her mouth. She eventually does, but in the meantime we are invited to contemplate the mug, full of dark brown tea illuminated by the sun pouring into the room.
In ways, that glass mug stands for everyone featured in this lovely film, Summer in the Forest, which opens in the U.S. this weekend. Like the glass mug, we are all fragile, as Vanier himself points out, but the residents in his communities especially so. As human beings, they have a richness deep inside. It can inspire us and reward us with its special taste, yet we must handle it with care, lest the precious gifts held in those fragile bodies be spilled on the floor and lost.
The film is shot in only two locations: Palestine and Trosly-Breuil, France, where L’Arche began some 55 years ago. But one can assume that the teacup is treated the same way in all the other L’Arche communities around the world. Vanier, 89, lives at Trosly, so residents and assistants both benefit from his special approach to treating the intellectually challenged. But his experience in life and the philosophy of how humans should treat one another has informed the rest of his network, now spread to five continents.
Assistants who commit to work in L’Arche live the same experience of the encounter that Vanier did, according to an official biography. “What makes sense to young people and what anchors them in the daily reality of L’Arche is the experience of community living which deeply affects their understanding of human beings and of disabilities.”
Vanier was born in Geneva, Switzerland, the fourth of five children of Canadian parents, Major-General Georges Vanier and Pauline Archer Vanier, in 1928. His father would go on to become Governor-General of Canada. The younger Vanier was inspired to join the navy when his parents took him on a trans-Atlantic steamer in 1942, at a time when much of the Second World War’s fighting was taking place in the North Atlantic. He joined the Royal Navy at the Dartmouth Naval College in England at age 13. His father would be one of the first military men to enter a recently liberated Nazi death camp in 1945. Surely, this filtered down to his son and became part of his reason for finding the humanity in those who are often rejected by society.
While in the navy, Vanier began searching for meaning and deepening his faith, reflecting on ways he could live the Gospel more fully in his daily life. He left the navy in 1950 to join Eau Vive, a center in Paris for the training of lay people in spirituality and theology. This center was directed by Dominican Father Thomas Philippe. After earning a doctorate in philosophy at the Institut Catholique, with a thesis on “Happiness as Principle and End of Aristotelian Ethics,” Vanier returned to Canada to teach at the University of Toronto.
But in 1963 Fr. Philippe invited him to help out at at le Val Fleuri, a large house in Trosly, about 50 miles north of Paris, where intellectually disabled men lived and where the priest was chaplain. Vanier returned again the following year and began to learn about the situation of people with intellectual disabilities. He visited a psychiatric hospital south of Paris and witnessed “difficult” living conditions. There he met two inmates whose distress deeply touched him. He decided to buy a house near Val Fleuri, to welcome and live with his new companions.
“Essentially, they wanted a friend,” Vanier said. “They were not very interested in my knowledge or my ability to do things, but rather they needed my heart and my being.”
Thus began L’Arche. Within a couple of years, other homes were opened, and Vanier sent out a call for volunteers. Young people began to join him from France, Canada, England and Germany, becoming assistants who made the choice to live with people with intellectual disabilities.
One thing that characterizes L’Arche’s approach is its recognition that the intellectually and developmentally disabled are not the only beneficiaries of assistance. There are many instances in the film of Vanier’s and the assistants’ thanking those they serve for what they give them. One middle-aged French woman who welcomes Andre, a L’Arche veteran, to her home for dinner receives his thanks for all that she has done for him. But she quickly responds, “No, Andre, it is I who thank you for your friendship.”
“They’ve taught me about what it means to be a human person, and to learn to love, and let the barriers down,” Vanier explains.
In a particularly touching scene, Vanier hovers over a wheelchair where a young man is sprawled out, unable to do anything for himself, unable to speak, hardly able to train his eyes on the elderly man. “You are so beautiful,” he tells the young person.
Nobody claims that life with the developmentally or intellectually challenged is easy. The film brings us up close and personal with people that many might deem “ugly.” Their eyes are bulging and cross-eyed; they can’t keep the saliva from flowing out of their twisted mouths. They are overcome by strange emotions and get hyper-frustrated.
“I’m living with people who are fragile,” Vanier says in the film, “but we’re all fragile. Let’s face it. But we’ve found ways of hiding our fragility. The big human problem is just to accept all people as they are.”
Vanier himself has experienced that fragility. Last October he suffered a heart attack and has had to withdraw from the active life he has enjoyed. But with this film, along with his writings, he leaves us simple lessons about love.
“L’Arche is not a utopia,” he admits. “It’s a hope, where we can bring people together. We at L’Arche want to be expecting presence, and presence is taking time — taking time and wasting time, apparently, to become who we’re called to be.”