Summer by the sea: A journey into L’Arche Bognor (part 1)

Sophie faceWe couldn’t be more pleased and proud to be supporting the release of Summer in the Forest, a beautiful and life-affirming documentary which will be released in cinemas and on V-O-D 23rd June.

The film (directed by Randall Wright) follows Philippe, Michel, Andre and Patrick, who were locked away and forgotten in violent asylums until the 1960s, when the young philosopher Jean Vanier took a stand and secured their release. Together they created L’Arche Trosly-Breuil, a community at the edge of a beautiful forest near Paris. A quiet revolution was born.

L’Arche (which now has 151 Communities in 37 countries) has a vision for a world where people with learning disabilities and their carers can discover a fuller life together. As part of the process of creating a companion booklet to go alongside Summer in the Forest, I paid a visit to the L’Arche Community closest to where Damaris Media is based: L’Arche Bognor Regis, on the South coast a short distance from the sea.

The spirit of fun, welcome and acceptance which is so evident in Summer in the Forest is very much alive at L’Arche Bognor. On the day I visited, plans were underway for a delegation to attend this year’s Federal Assembly in Belfast, and the whole community gathered together for presentations, singing and artwork. Though my time there was short, it absolutely felt like a breath of fresh air in the midst of a busy week. At L’Arche, life’s pace and priorities are refreshingly different.

Amid cups of tea, laughter and many curious questions on both sides, I spent some time talking to the people who live and work at this very special place.

Joanna (right) helps paint a flag for the
Joanna (right) helps paint a flag for the Federal Assembly

Joanna – Core Member

I have lived at L’Arche Bognor for six years. Before, I was in North London – I lived in a flat on my own for thirteen years. Coming to L’Arche was the biggest move of my life. When I first came here, I saw the sea, and I got so excited. It was pilgrimage week, and we went for a walk every day. I came and stayed in Zacchaeus House for a few days, and then in all the houses, and then I said, this is where I want to live.

I’ve got a boyfriend who lives in one of the other houses. When we met, he phoned me up – he kept on phoning me up and saying, ‘will you go out with me?’, and I said yes.

A decorative dove - L'Arche means 'The Ark'
L’Arche means ‘The Ark’

My own glimpse into L’Arche life gave me more of an appreciation for what Summer in the Forest achieves. The film has an unassuming approach, simply taking time to be with the people at its centre: peaceable Michel, old romantic Andre, would-be action hero David. These people are given the space to unfold their own experiences and perspectives. They are placed at the centre of the story – and this echoes the philosophy of L’Arche Communities.

Lesley – Office administrator

I got involved in L’Arche through Rotary. I’ve been here since the beginning, nearly forty years. My son grew up coming here all the time, and now he’s working here, painting the house. This is a job for me, but it’s also like living in an extended family.

Things can be a bit chaotic here! You can have an idea of how you think the day is going to go, but it never quite pans out that way. L’Arche is one of those places that sucks you into its heart. Even when there’s stress and tension it always melts away. It’s an amazing place to be. The friendships have such longevity. And L’Arche has more results than a marriage bureau! So many people meet their partners here.

Lots of people walk past the door but they don’t actually know what L’Arche is about – so we’re excited for people to see the film.

Fred, one of the longest-standing members at L'Arche Bognor
Fred, one of the longest-standing members at L’Arche Bognor

Summer in the Forest is in many ways a celebration of L’Arche’s pioneers, including Jean Vanier himself, who is now at 88 regarded as something of a living saint. L’Arche itself has been around since 1964, and transformed countless lives in that time. Fred, one of the members I met, had been at L’Arche Bognor for many years and had a wealth of memories stretching back through the history of the community.

Fred – Core Member

I’ve been here for a very long time. I’m the longest-standing resident here, I’ve been here since it started 39 years ago. I’ve known lots of assistants and lots of members and leaders. You don’t have community, where I lived before I came here. I don’t want to go back there.

I saw Jean Vanier when he spoke in London, he was talking about his life. Some of us went to Trosly [the community in the film], and he was there in his study room. He spoke to us and shared with us.

Do you want to come and work here?

Pottery made by members at L'Arche Bognor
Pottery made by members at L’Arche Bognor

The lessons of Summer in the Forest, and the lessons of L’Arche, stretch far beyond the issue of disability. Jean Vanier stresses in the film that the Community where he still lives and works ‘isn’t a utopia, it’s a hope’ – and that hope couldn’t be more timely.

Carmen – Assistants Co-ordinator

I’m from Romania. When I learned about L’Arche I felt very inspired, like this was something that I wanted to be part of. I came here in 2001 as an assistant, and I’ve done different roles over the years.

L’Arche is like any family or any community where conflict can happen – you find ways of forgiving each other. I feel that we listen to each other, that people are empowered, that they have a voice. There’s a clear sense that each person has unique gifts and can contribute in unique ways.

The heart of what we do is in the mutual relationships we build with people. It transforms us, assistants and members. We learn from each other. The changes we see are amazing – people learning new skills, living independently, travelling the world, going to far away places. We acknowledge people’s limitations, but we focus on their gifts.

I’ve been changed so much by being here. I’ve got more acceptance for my own frailty and vulnerability. I’ve received an amazing welcome from people with learning disabilities. In the outside world you have to prove yourself, whereas here, you don’t.

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Summer in the Forest, featuring the L’Arche community in Trosly, France, arrives in UK cinemas and on video-on-demand 23rd June.

If Summer in the Forest inspires you to become involved with L’Arche, there are a number of ways to do this.  You could consider becoming an assistant or volunteering in a Community.  You may also consider making a donation or fundraising.  

For further information:
[email protected]

Published by

Sophie Lister

Damaris resources bring films to new audiences, start conversations, and enrich lives. Find out more at Here at the Damaris Film Blog, we publish regular discussion guides to help you make the most of the latest cinema releases.

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