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Culture Documentary

Tiziana Fabi/AFP/Getty Images

Jean Vanier
Tiziana Fabi/AFP/Getty Images


The value of the weak

Summer in the Forest spotlights the dignity that belongs to every human being

Washington Post editor Ruth Marcus recently argued in an op-ed that if she had been pregnant with a Down syndrome baby, she would have aborted the child. “That was not the child I wanted,” Marcus wrote. “You can call me selfish, or worse, but I am in good company. The evidence is clear that most women confronted with the same unhappy alternative would make the same decision.” She’s right that the majority of women, if they learn their baby has Down syndrome, abort.

Come find a reminder of the humanity and value of those with Down syndrome (or any other disability) in Summer in the Forest, a documentary about the worldwide L’Arche communities for those with disabilities. L’Arche communities are casual homes where people live and work to build “mutually transforming relationships” among the disabled and those without disabilities. The film follows a few disabled individuals in the original L’Arche community in Trosly-Breuil, France, but focuses chiefly on founder Jean Vanier.

Vanier, a Canadian, is a Mother Teresa figure for L’Arche residents, and the camera follows him as he sits in a room with a boy in a wheelchair who can’t talk or move and showers love on him, telling him how beautiful he is. Director Randall Wright, though, doesn’t explore Vanier’s Catholicism, the whole inspiration behind the operation. The L’Arche movement deeply influenced Catholic theologian Henri Nouwen, a connection Wright also leaves unmentioned.

“What is it to be a human being?” asks Vanier. “Is it power?” Vanier’s lifelong thesis is that the weak of the world teach us what it is to be truly human. The film is worthwhile for the simple summer barbecue at the end, where you see the joy of the L’Arche residents, being in each other’s company, being with their families, eating, and playing.

Standing to the side in that scene is a resident with Down syndrome who has taken on a responsibility brimming with irony, given the violence toward those with his condition: He is patrolling the perimeter of the home during the barbecue to make sure everyone is safe.

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(Basis Berlin FilmProduktion)


Of Fathers and Sons

Of Fathers and Sons takes an inside look at boys growing up in radical Islam

In the gripping documentary Of Fathers and Sons, director Talal Derki offers a rare glimpse into the inner workings of a radical Syrian Islamic family. The Syrian conflict’s effect on children and families who have fled Syria is well-known. What isn’t known is how the conflict has impacted the children of the jihadists who remain there, and Derki returned to his Syrian homeland from Berlin to find out.

Derki and cinematographer Kahtan Hassoun pose as war photographers sympathetic to the Salafi jihad and earn the trust of a radical family in the northern Syrian province of Idlib. (Talal Derki is an atheist.) Derki and Hassoun live with the family for two years. Besides brief narration at the beginning and the end, Derki is silent. The camera speaks as it captures moments between the children and their father, Abu Osama.

Abu Osama is a passionate member of al-Nusra, a Syrian arm of al-Qaeda. He is also a passionate family man who spends his days disarming landmines and shooting Coalition soldiers before coming home to dote on his eight sons.

The film shows how Abu Osama’s violence mirrors itself in his children’s lives. One son proudly says he cut the head off a bird “like you did to that man, Dad.” The camera captures the boys throwing rocks at girls leaving school, yelling, “Allah is great!” The children also make their own homemade bomb, taking turns kicking it around.

But juxtaposed with these instances is the boys’ perfectly normal brotherly fun and affection for each other: older boys helping the younger ones get dressed, laughing and swimming together, and hovering under warm blankets together on cold nights.

Those remnants of innocence, however, are not to be preserved, as Abu Osama sends his two oldest sons to Sharia school where they learn to be jihadists. He declares the war in Syria will be a long one, and the film leaves audiences feeling that if children raised like his are the future of Syria, he may be right.

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Disarming Films & Esponda Productions

Director Amy Berg and abuse victim Evan Henzi
Disarming Films & Esponda Productions


The darker side of Tinseltown

An Open Secret is a troubling but appropriate Hollywood exposé for our scandal-ridden times

It must have come as a surprise to director Amy Berg two years ago when film festivals declined to screen her documentary An Open Secret. Her previous film Deliver Us from Evil had been universally praised by critics and nominated for an Academy Award. Now, she and her team couldn’t even get a distribution deal. But then again, her earlier documentary dealt with pedophilia in the Catholic Church, not in Hollywood.

Perhaps now that one of Open Secret’s peripheral subjects—X-Men and Superman Returns director Bryan Singer—has became the latest in a long line of Hollywood heavyweights to face public fallout stemming from sexual abuse charges, the film’s time has finally come. Certainly the producers hope so: They recently made the documentary free to stream on Vimeo in a bid to bring attention to the issue of child molestation in Hollywood.

The systemic abuse detailed in the PG-13 film, with descriptions of the rape and molestation of 11- to 15-year-old boys, is more horrifying than just about anything we’ve seen in the headlines over the last few months. One young man said he was only 12 when his manager began showing him gay pornography and told him the behavior onscreen was typical of manager-client relations in the movie business: “He just told me this is normal. This is what you have to do.” Most disturbing, though, is hearing about the inner guilt and confusion the victim experienced because he couldn’t help having natural, physical responses to his victimizer—something the victimizer later cites as proof the boy “wanted it.”

Upsetting as such details are to hear, the stripping away of the euphemisms people often use when discussing abuse forces the viewer to consider not just the predators, but those who facilitate their crimes. Powerful pedophiles can have a network of lawyers and studio sycophants in place protecting them. Listening to former detective-turned-Vanity-Fair-reporter John Connolly describe how his exposé on child abuse in Hollywood was killed by Details magazine can’t help but call to mind what Ronan Farrow experienced this year when trying to get NBC to air his reporting on Harvey Weinstein.

Even more infuriating is when the founder and former chair of the SAG-AFTRA Young Performers Committee tries to downplay the crimes committed against children in his industry. “I’m not sure how horrible they really are,” Michael Harrah tells Berg. “This is not a terrible thing unless you think it is. It’s just something that happens to you in your life.”

But if it seems that this warped thinking is being swept away in our current national demand for reckoning, consider that one of the strongest early Oscar contenders right now centers on a sexual relationship between a graduate student in his mid-20s and a 17-year-boy. Call Me By Your Name is being hailed by the Los Angeles Times as a “powerfully erotic and affecting love story,” and USA Today says its depiction of first love is “worth savoring.”

Despite dealing directly with horrific crimes, the tone of An Open Secret is not all dispiriting. The courage a few of the boys exhibit, risking their careers in order to expose their abusers, makes you want to stand up and cheer. Maddeningly, though, the resulting convictions often mean little, as in the case of an acting coach who continued working at top kids’ shows such as The Suite Life of Zack & Cody even after he was convicted on multiple counts of child molesting.

The public is calling for justice for those who’ve suffered from sexual abuse, and no group of victims should demand our attention more than children. Over the years the media have been dismissive and even sneering toward down-and-out former child stars because they exhibit the very kind of troubled behavior you’d expect from anyone who endured such trauma at a young age.

But as we’ve seen in recent months, titans can fall. Now is a perfect time to return attention to this searing documentary.

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