Randall Wright’s cinematic close up of L’Arche, Jean Vanier’s community for people with mental disabilities, opens today in theatres across Canada. The British documentary maker spoke with Convivium’s Peter Stockland about the powerful change that followed acceptance of Vanier’s invitation to see humanity itself in an entirely new light.
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Peter Stockland:Summer in the Forest is emphatically not a documentary by L’Arche. It’s Randall Wright’s documentary about L’Arche. What drew you to L’Arche and to Jean Vanier in the first place?
Randall Wright: I had read Jean's books and I'd obviously thought about it intellectually a bit, but it was just meeting someone very different. It's an invitation Jean puts out to all of us. If we want to change the world, if we want peace, we have to be prepared to meet people who are from another group, who people unknown to us, maybe even our enemies. These are the people that sort of open our heart. And yet we assume they're the people who are going to cause us a headache in some way, or threaten us.
And certainly as an image they are clearly a challenge to the idea that's general in the media at the moment: that we're meant to have a great body, and we're meant to have a great mind, we're meant to have an amazingly clear narrative of our professional success. And here are people who are incredibly successful in their relations, they are incredibly loving, but they don't fit that model. Presumably that, amongst other things, is the reasons why they were hidden.
And Jean, in 1964, was one of the very first to rescue them.
Peter Stockland: He devoted his life to, again to use your phrase, to creating not just a place for them to go, but a place to build a sense of community, and, if not full independence, at least a sense of them making their way in the world on their own. How was working with him? Was he available?
Randall Wright: He was working very hard on lots of fronts. As you know, he's involved in peace negotiations. At the time, he was trying to bring the Russians and the Ukrainians together. He has numerous retreats, and he writes to people, raises money, all sorts of things.
But he was just wonderful to me from the word go. He was someone who can see people. Somehow, he saw me, accepted me and trusted me. He really trusted me. It's quite easy to float off into talking about him as a great philosopher, a great theologian, and a very special person who might one day be regarded as a saint by the Catholic Church.
But what strikes me about him, and what his goodness constitutes for me, is his courage. He has the courage not to talk, and to just do things.
He initially took on three people, and one of the people couldn't live in the house, and so it became two. He devoted himself to them. He didn't know what was going to happen. But he knew it was the right thing to do, and so he did it. He's awesome in that way.
I think he has tremendous command. There is the admiral in there. You wouldn't go against him easily. I should think he's a formidable opponent. If you decided to go against the idea of a community house somewhere in some village in some part of the world, if Jean turned up, I think very quickly you would change your mind.
But he's just a delightful man. He's like an artist in a way. He somehow is able to look with an innocent eye at the world. He has a confidence and patience that there is something beautiful in front of him. And he gives it time, and he notices what it is.
Obviously, it's what he hears, too. He has a very deep faith. He feels something positive in a situation, and he searches and searches and finds it. And I think the rest of us, I'm speaking about myself, can be incredibly impatient. Sometimes, most of the time, we are not willing to meet people who are different to us. We search for people who speak the same language. We search for shortcuts. We think we're happier living on our own.
I love him. He's the most impressive person I've ever met by a long way. He is the one who has the deepest grasp of what a human being is in their goodness – as well as in their potential to be destructive.
He is a sort of Martin Luther King for people with disabilities. He has changed attitudes to a whole category of people. Very few people in history can say that.
The difference with Jean and other people is that the people he has helped haven't been able to speak on his behalf, which is why so many people don't know about him.
If the people he’s helped had been able to stand up, then he'd be one of the most famous people in the world. But we still don't notice his people. And I'm as guilty as anyone else. It took me a long time to see these people.
PS: What is it that keeps us from being him? I mean in the way Mother Teresa said, "Don't come to Calcutta to be Mother Teresa; be Mother Teresa where you live." What is it that keeps us from being Jean Vanier where we are?
RW: That is a difficult question. I think it has to do with the lack of silence and peace in our lives. There's something I suppose someone of my age…I'm 55 now and I find the gaps in life are now very much more filled up. I really cherish moments of peace that is a quality of L'Arche and certainly of Trosly. There's quite a lot of just being there. It's a place where you can't pretend.
I think we waste a lot of time pretending we're somebody we're not, really. With someone such as person who has brain damage, like Sebastian in the film, lying down, semi-prone. You can't pretend. All you can do is be with him and smile. And he beams back this amazing acceptance and peace. And actually the toughest thing is to accept that. The toughest thing is to stop, because it's in the moment where you stop that you see who you are, and probably stop to see other people.
Jean genuinely thinks it's the person who tries to get you to kind of come back to Earth, that's the person everybody needs. In a letter recently at Easter, he said that all we need to do, all that Jesus is asking us to do, is make friends. And if we make friends with just one person, if that's all of us ever did in our life, just one person, who is different to us, who needs us, then two things will happen. We will be healed. And they will be loved. We will obviously be loved, too, but there's a healing in this.
PS: My wife and I had a wonderful experience recently that sounds to me like what you mean by “stopping to see.” We went to an exhibit of photographs taken by young teenagers in a very poor neighbourhood in Montreal. I've been taking pictures all my life, but here were these kids who saw the world in such a different way, and showed such natural imagination.
RW: We lose that sense of innocence, the utter humility of putting yourself entirely on one side. Forgetting yourself, looking outward, and then discovering someone who is looking back at us. When you ask what Jean has that we've lost, I think that’s what he’s kept. Picasso said, at an early age that because he was forced by his father to be a virtuoso artist, "by the age of 9 I could draw like Raphael. I spent the rest of my life trying to draw like a child." He was trying to regain his innocence, an innocent eye, an honesty and directness.
Jean would just say he is simply following Jesus. And because Jesus loves everyone, then everyone's welcome. Jean told me he was reading a new book about Jesus, and he had read it four times because it was such a fresh way of seeing Jesus, and he wants to memorize it. The man is nearly 90. But he's got a hunger, an interest, and a naturalness in dealing with things that makes him really special.
In the film, Michel, who's a very unprepossessing and not the character I imagined would be a lead in the film, finally ended up after a series of arguments and debates with him, one of the most important characters. He epitomized Jean's insight that there is something special in the people we ignore. And that's why I filmed it using cinema grade equipment and we used an amazing sound recordist. All the people in the film had a separate microphone so obviously I couldn't tell them what to do or what to say. I had to be prepared for anybody to speak. So we decided to treat everybody in the film in the way that we treat the most famous people in society.
And the music is very beautiful. It's fully orchestrated. It's performed to the screen like an old forties film, the musicians are performing to the screen It's giving the (film) production values in a way that values the people as well.
It's very easy getting lost in admiration. I am lost in admiration of Jean Vanier, but all he wants us to do is look somewhere we haven't looked before and see the people and stop the conflict, our inner conflict, of trying to project our own weakness and humanity, our own damaged self. Even at 55, I'm hopefully learning some basic lessons, though probably I'll have forgotten them in a couple of years time.
I wanted to make the film to capture that. I've seen so many things in life that have gone terribly wrong, and this is a world that makes sense to me.
PS: How does that affect you as a documentary filmmaker? How does it shape your search for the next project?
RW: Well, (cinematographer) Patrick Duval and I have developed a new technique of being prepared to accept the trust of the people we're filming. In filming, it's very often about our power. The camera looks a bit like a gun, and you sort of line it up on someone and they tend to perform for the camera. So it's very easy to take that sort of convention wherever you go, and for people to sit down and say things or whatever.
But what was extraordinary was that when we went to L'Arche, people already trusted us. They wanted to be our friends. The problem was whether we were willing to trust that their apparently irrational acts and statements had a route back to something profound in their lives.
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When you first enter L'Arche, it's like a world turned upside down. There's no power structure. There are people sitting around apparently not doing very much. You realize the assistants have been up since the crack of dawn cleaning the place or whatever. When you come about 10:30 everyone's a bit tired, sitting around. But beneath it all, there's an extraordinary kind of clarity about the value of the friendships and the relationships and the activities that grew out of that which are other things that I films. Making things, lots of ceramics going on. And particular walks.
I would have liked to have had more in the film of the one thing Jean values very highly, which is to give people back their past. It’s not so much the case now but it was the case that when people are placed in somewhere like an asylum, no one really refers to their loved one, no-one refers to the key moments of their life. Yet they love their family as much as anyone else,
Jean, when people were sort of coming out of institutions, started to realize that they had a possibility of making a home. Part of the process was to take them back to the grave of a father or the place where they were born, and to give them back those sacred parts of their lives. It actually did exist and they were, and they are, valued by the people.
PS: And what’s the effect of that experience of the past on projects you might do in the future?
RWl: I'm thinking all the time what to do next. I have to earn money because I have a family. I just made a film about Picasso for the BBC, and I have to do a certain number of films, but this film, it feels in a way like my first. It’s a film that's come out of a personal journey that started with my great aunt who had disabilities and meeting Jean Vanier at St. Pancras Station. And I've tried to reflect his values and, in a sense, needed to learn those values myself. It's a really important experience letting go of my powers as a director. So I'd like to go on another journey like that, that would be great.
PS: What is the one thing you would most like people to say about the film after watching it?
RW: I’d like for them to see it as a beautiful film where you get to know people you never thought you’d get to know. And in doing that, you would get to know something about yourself: to discover the capacity to love someone very different from you. The people we've turned in to a problem, turn out to be the people we need. They can become someone you get to know that turns your world the right away round, and you see the world for the first time in a long time.
6:00 pm showings at:
Calgary, Cineplex Odeon Eau Claire Market
7:00 pm showings at:
Halifax, Cineplex Cinemas Park Lane
Montreal, Cineplex Odeon Quartier Latin and Cinéma Cineplex Odeon Cavendish Mall
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