New friends, new life  

by
23 June 2017

Stephen Brown sees current film releases

L’Arche member: David Surmaire cycling to work in the film Summer in the Forest

L’Arche member: David Surmaire cycling to work in the film Summer in the Forest

THE opening credits of Summer in the Forest (Cert. PG) state that in 1964 a Canadian ex-naval officer was invited by the chaplain to a house filled with “idiots” living north of Paris. The officer, Jean Vanier, was changed for ever by his deep friendship with these rejected people. The rest, as they say, is history.

He saw the value of those with intellectual disabilities and rescued them from lunatic asylums, proving they could live in an ordinary home. The organisation that he founded, L’Arche, now has 151 communities in 37 countries. The film mainly concerns itself with Philippe Seux, Patrick Droualt, Michel Petit, and André Stubenrauch, members of different ages, all living in the commune near Paris.

Throughout one summer, the four took the camera crew deep into the adjacent forest to join in the silence, humour, and life stories told in their inimitable ways. In the process of the film, we also witness other characters asserting their independence. Many of the older people in the film mention marriage as an unattainable dream, whereas for the younger generation this is a realistic possibility.

André is desperate for a date. Meanwhile, Céline and Fred fall in love. We witness their engagement party and Vanier’s blessing on them. David draws inspiration from watching the Walker, Texas Ranger television programme, aiming himself to fight the forces of evil. There is also a visit to the Bethlehem community. Maha (25) struggles to hold a cup of tea. The film has the sensitivity to stay with her until she eventually succeeds. It’s a touching moment.

The director, Randall Wright (maker of Hockney), says that the film is trying to answer Vanier’s question “How can you make friends with someone different to you?” but also why you should try. And how do you reach out to people on the margins, to different social or ethnic groups, and how do you make peace with your enemy? It emerges that these questions arise from Vanier’s experience of the atrocities of the Second World War, especially the Holocaust victims.

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Built on a belief in God’s love for the vulnerable, he believes that L’Arche communities create a beautiful world alongside our broken one. They welcome us into their lives, encouraging us to drop our guard and stop pretending. Michel speaks of his war-torn past, visiting a memorial to victims of the Buchenwald death camp. He tells his carer that he loves the Jews because Jesus was one.

These marginalised people, Vanier (now 88) says, teach us by example that we need each other; that we must wake up from our fantasy of perpetual individual success. “The powerful lead us to ideology; the weak are in the dirt and lead us to reality,” he says.

Summer in the Forest intends us to exult in the love that L’Arche residents have for one another and anyone who passes their way. It will probably achieve this aim with audiences. It’s not Utopia, says Vanier, but hope.

www.summerintheforest.com lists places to see the film. A church study pack is also available.

THE film Stockholm, My Love (Cert. PG) is about resurrection, says its director, Mark Cousins, who is best known for programmes such as The Story of Film. He avoids describing himself as a reviewer. “Critics are usually evaluators and judgers. I’m more of a worshipper than that.”

Stockholm, My Love leans in that direction, too, filming the city with all due reverence. A Swedish architect, Alva Achebe (played by the singer Neneh Cherry), wanders round Stockholm a year after having killed an old man there in a car accident. She remains troubled by this, though it was not her fault. The woman is challenged by the spaces she moves through. “Is everything today trying to tell me how sad I am?” she asks.

The structures — a converted mosque, skateboard park, the glass top of a light-bulb factory, etc. — seem to sympathise with her current emotional state. Awe and wonder intermingle with traumatised reflections on that fateful moment driving through Stockholm 12 months ago.

Achebe admires the egalitarian, clean-cut lines of Gunnar Asplund’s Nordic classicist streets, but is more profoundly affected by the places of worship she visits. The first is St Mark’s, designed by Sigurd Lewerentz, with its coarse bricks and bulky mortar based on old Middle Eastern designs. The interior feels womb-like, assisting Achebe’s quest to recover a sense of home, of where she truly belongs after months of alienation. In the hint of a quotation from Crime and Punishment she cries out “I don’t know how to live!”

Somehow or other, it is the great outdoors that allows her to do so. Christopher Doyle’s magnificent photography gives us a kaleidoscopic set of images, natural features as well as buildings. Their fragmentariness can be made whole only by our own efforts. After a day of talking to herself, Achebe resolves to let Stockholm speak instead. From thereon, we are treated not to her voice, but captions of thought. Cheerfulness starts breaking in.

The film’s redemptive qualities lie in beginning to see the same world through a different filter. This happens when she lets go of speech. A new day brings new possibilities. One of the churches she visits is the Chapel of the Resurrection. The decision was made to film the building solely from its exterior, the door being locked. Achebe in her downcast state can see the inside through a peephole. It’s enough of a glimpse to assure her of future joy.

Being the cineaste he is does, at times, put Cousins too much in debt to illustrious filmmakers he admires. Naming a film Stockholm, My Love deliberately invokes Hiroshima, Mon Amour (1959); but is somewhere devastated by war in Resnais’s film an appropriate comparison, even if both cities become places where painful memories possibly herald newness of life?

We may sense some happiness slowly creeping into Stockholm’s narrative, but it is never a foregone conclusion. The rollercoaster ride that Achebe takes serves as a metaphor for life’s ups and downs. One moment, there’s elation, the next misery. What she catches sight of inside the Chapel of the Resurrection is a cross. The risen Christ continued to bear his wounds. And so will Achebe.

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