Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Summer in the Forest

We are obsessed with power. A French village shows life needn’t be this way: Christina Patterson 
Summer in the Forest, a breathtakingly beautiful new film celebrates a community that gives strength to people at the bottom of the pile.  If you want beauty and kindness, then go and see this truly important film. It will make you laugh. It will make you cry

When a Canadian naval officer-turned-philosopher arrived in Trosly-Breuil in 1964, he made a change to his life that started a revolution. Jean Vanier invited two men with learning disabilities to share his home. When the local priest retired, Vanier was asked to take over the running of a home for 30 men with learning disabilities in the same village. There was violence. There was noise. Hardly a day went by when there wasn’t a broken window. “It was to discover,” he says in his calm, clear voice, “that in humiliation there is something terrible.” It took a long time, he says, for Le Val Fleuri to “become a place of peace”. This was the beginning of L’Arche, an international movement that now has 149 communities in 37 countries: communities where people with and without learning disabilities live and work together. Over half a century later, there are a number of these communities in the UK, but their way of life and ethos is not without its critics: they argue that those with learning disabilities aren’t given sufficient opportunity to exercise personal choice, and should have a greater right to self-determination.

In Randall Wright’s breathtakingly beautiful film – largely set in the community at Trosly-Breuil, but also offering glimpses of Ma’an lil-Hayat, in the occupied territories in Bethlehem, where Palestinian Muslims and Christians live and work together – the keynote is joy. Residents laugh, sing, dance, arm-wrestle, picnic and play together. Sara, a Palestinian who suffered brain damage as a baby when she fell out of a car window, is one of those who is always smiling and laughing. “If someone is unhappy,” she says simply, “I always try to help them”.
It isn’t Eden. Patrick will always be a loner. Michel is still haunted by memories of the wardens who beat him up. André, who lives for candle-lit dinners in the village with the friend he wishes was his girlfriend, can’t forget the father who bullied him. But it’s a place, a world, a dream of a world, where people who are usually at the bottom of the pile are given a taste of what it’s like when hierarchies of power give way to what you can really only call love.

We are obsessed with power. We watch people jostle for it, fight for it and run vicious campaigns to get their hands on it. Two British prime ministers have recently risked their country’s future because they wanted more of it, and one of them lost the power that she had because she thought power was something you held close to your chest. A prime minister, in fact, who started to tackle our biggest challenge since the second world war by pretending that our 27 EU partners in the negotiation were our servants and we were their boss.

We need to think differently about power. We need to understand that power is only lent to other people, and only when it’s based on trust. We need to understand that real power is what happens when human beings listen to other human beings, and take the time to understand their fears, their hopes and their dreams. “When I have to go and see people in Paris,” says Vanier in the film, “I’m not terribly happy … It’s like a ping pong match. I have to prove that I know more than you.”

This man is a philosopher. At the age of 88, he knows quite a lot. But the main thing he has learned, he says, is from people “at the bottom of the ladder of social status”, who have taught him what it means to be “a human person”, and to “let the barriers down”. In these dark times, we need to know that there is summer in the forest. We need to know that there is joy and laughter and beauty and kindness and love. In the past few days we have seen acts of great kindness amid terrible pain. If you want to see more beauty and kindness, then go and see this truly important film. It will make you laugh. It will make you cry. And it will remind you of what it really means to be strong.