Review: Summer in the Forest – Disability and the Human Experience

Charles A. “Chuck” Donovan  



What does it mean to be human? This is the fundamental question presented in the film Summer in the Forest (“Summer”). A documentary of people with intellectual disabilities, Summer suggests that friendship and relationship are central to the human experience and dignity.


Screening now in North America, Summer documents life at the original L’Arche commune located near Paris, France. In keeping with the L’Arche mission, Summer invites the audience to become friends and to build relationships with the community members. Summer captures a very real world where people with intellectual disabilities are treated not as patients but as human fellows—living together as peers, friends, and family. Moreover, Summer shows how the L’Arche model empowers people with intellectual disabilities to be full participants in both public and private life.


L’Arche is the brainchild of founder Jean Vanier. In 1964, Mr. Vanier visited the asylums of France. Mr. Vanier was horrified to witness how people with intellectual disabilities—often labeled “idiots”—were treated.[1] Hidden from society, people with intellectual disabilities were damned to lives of sadness in sterile, walled environments.


Motivated by the absence of humanity, Mr. Vanier established L’Arche as a place for people with intellectual disabilities to be integrated into society and to have a real home with real relationships. L’Arche staff and volunteers tailor the level of assistance and support to each community member. Today, L’Arche has 149 communities in 37 countries, with 14 projects in the pipeline.[2] Additionally, L’Arche consists of 5,000 members with intellectual disabilities.[3]


Poetically, Summer burst onto the global scene and to great acclaim nearly four years after France’s Superior Council of Audiovisual Content (“CSA”) decided to discriminate against people with intellectual disabilities. In a controversial ruling, CSA censored a 30-second television broadcast of the Down syndrome awareness video Dear Future Mom.[4] In its ruling, CSA cited concern that the humanization of people with Down syndrome may disturb the consciences of women who chose to terminate a child based on the diagnosis.[5]


But Summer’s global success defies CSA’s censorship effort. Summer raises public awareness that people with intellectual disabilities continue to lead joyful, meaningful lives filled with love and relationship. Mr. Vanier’s love and compassion for all people continue to challenge the temptation to shun and isolate people with intellectual disabilities.


Additionally, Mr. Vanier’s written works inspired Summer Director Randall Wright to document L’Arche.[6] As a child, Mr. Wright recalled how he and his family struggled to associate with his Aunt May.[7] Aunt May suffered from intellectual disabilities, and the family often ushered her away at gatherings.[8] Mr. Wright recalls being frightened of Aunt May at the time, even ignoring her existence.[9] However, Aunt May would go on to become the inspiration for Summer.[10]  The value of life is both subtle and enduring, but a work of art like this film can make what is subtle obvious and what is enduring a permanent etching on the human heart.


Summer in the Forest is currently being screened on a limited basis. Click here for information on screenings near you.



Chuck Donovan is president of the Charlotte Lozier Institute.




[3] Id.


[5] Id.


[7] Id.

[8] Id.

[9] Id.

[10] Id.


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