Childhood is a strange thing. When you’re young, primary school feels like the centre of the universe, and no one on this earth could tell you that the friends you’ve made won’t always be there. Everything seemed so much simpler, right?
Well, actually, maybe not. We might think we’re stressed out now, with looming university assignments and deadlines creeping around the corner, but our primary years came with their fair share of stress, too. Whether we realised it or not, we were riddled with anxieties, with insecurities, and with fears. This is the idea that School Life, Neasa Ni Chianain and David Rane’s bittersweet documentary, focuses on. This, and the poignancy that comes with leaving, be that leaving school, or leaving a career that one’s entire life has revolved around. School Life is set in a rather niche place; Headfort, which is currently Ireland’s only primary-age boarding school. As a result of its uniqueness, it is home to a wide range of eccentric students and staff, where both hilarities and heartbreaks occur as regularly as the lessons do.
Headfort is the kind of place where Latin is taught as casually as Maths and English. It is a place where lessons on rock and roll, pop, and blues are taken just as seriously as those on the sciences, where the kids are encouraged to make whatever kind of music they want, where they are reminded by deadpan teacher John that this is their childhood, their time, and their space.
In times such as these, where so much of our education system is obsessed by the idea of outstanding academic achievement, and of regimented learning, Headfort seeks to ensure that creativity amongst children is maintained. Where so many attempts to stamp out artistic nature in favour of a focus on STEM, and what are known as the ‘core’ subjects, Headfort wholeheartedly encourages it’s pupils to explore and engage with their creative instincts. In doing so, students gain an education that is not only highly valuable, but they are also allowed to be exactly what they are, which is, ultimately, kids.
Throughout its’ duration, School Life does a fantastic job of stressing the importance of teachers, of the endless commitments that they make, and of the incomparable impact they have on young minds and lives. By choosing to examine the experiences of John and Amanda, a couple that has dedicated almost their entire existence to educating generation after generation at Headfort, the film offers a poignant, compassionate insight into the lives of teachers. It looks at the sacrifices both John and Amanda have made for the sake of providing education, wonder, and advice to their pupils, and suggests that, above all, we owe everything to our educators, our teachers, and our professors.
School Life’ is an incredible piece of filmmaking, it is a loud, vibrant celebration of the wonders of childhood, of school, of youthful dreaming, and, simultaneously, it is a gentle reminder that all things must eventually come to an end. It leaves us questioning what we should do when we finally have to leave that which we love most in the world, and shows us that, even when we feel like nothing truly exists beyond what we choose to dedicate our lives to, there is a whole world, and life itself, waiting for us, just around the corner.
I also had the opportunity to interview both Director, Neasa Ní Chianáin and Co-Director & Producer, David Rane.
What inspired you to make a documentary about such a niche subject, this being life at Ireland’s only primary-age boarding school? It’s a fascinating topic, particularly for those like myself that had no idea this enchanting place even existed, and I’m curious as to what drew you and David Rane to it.
My partner and co-director David and I both went to boarding school. I was a day pupil in a primary boarding school in Ireland, very similar in environment to Headfort. After this, I elected to go to boarding school in high school, and I had very positive experience. David was sent from Africa back to boarding school in England when he was only 7 years old. His parents were working in Nigeria, it was at the time of the Biafran War, and they decided to send himself and his older brother back to the UK. These kinds of decisions are difficult for a seven-year-old to understand, so David had quite a difficult time being separated from parents. As documentary filmmakers, and as parents ourselves, we were keen to know what a 21st century boarding school looked like, and to document the experience for children boarding today.
How did you come across Amanda and John, who are both such wonderfully eccentric figures, and why did you decide to document a year in their life, as opposed to that of any other teachers’ at Headfort? How did they feel about their experiences being examined, so to speak?
We spent a year intensively researching the project. We had an office in the school as we knew this was a total immersion project and in order to work we needed to become part of the school’s daily life. Initially the Leydens – John and Amanda – had no interest in a film about the school at all. We always had a sense that there was something very special going on with them. One clue was the number of former students of all ages who continually returned to the school to visit the Leydens. They would just drop in unannounced and sometimes stay for days on end, like Olivia, in the film.
David and I didn’t have teachers like the Leydens, teachers that we wanted to go back and visit and socialise with. It took a while for the door to open and the trust to build, but once John and Amanda got to know us and like us, trust was built and they came fully on board.
There were other great teachers in the school, but when you tell a story you need to decide who your lead characters are going to be. For us there was no question, but John and Amanda were ‘our leads’. After that, we had to select characters that wove in and out of John and Amanda’s teaching world, including the current Headmaster, Dermot Dix, who was taught at 7 by the Leydens, and is now an amazing teacher himself.
John and Amanda had no idea that they would be ‘the leads’ in the film. We did actually film with the whole school, but I think they were the ones who were most generous with their time and really allowed us into their world, consequently we really had the material to build them as characters. It was only when we were at rough cut that they were shown the film and they realised they were then main focus of the film. Once they got over the initial shock, I think they were quietly pleased with their portrayal and the portrayal of the school.
One of the best things that ‘School Life’ does, I found, is show that, for all their academic achievements, their status, and so on, the children we see at Headfort are still, simply, just children. They want to explore the woods, they want to sing pop songs, just as much as they want to go to places like Harrow. What kind of experience did you have when filming with these kids, and how did they respond to being documented?
The children were fantastic, and also very generous, they really did allow us into their circle. Of course, in the beginning they’d mess around, but very quickly they accepted us as part of their lives. Children are very transparent, and they let you know either through body language or verbally if they’re happy to have you around. Hence, we worked on an intuitive level with the children and we could sense when we weren’t welcome. If there was something private they were talking about, we didn’t intrude. There was one girl, who halfway through filming felt a little self-conscious, so we left her alone until she felt better about being filmed again. She wasn’t one of our main characters, but it was important to respect her wishes. We didn’t want any child to feel pressurised.
One of the parents told us the following year that some of the children missed having us around, that made us feel very good about it all as we really did miss being around them.
Despite the joy and hilarity that is found throughout the film, it ends on something of a bittersweet note. We come to realise by the documentary’s climax that nothing can ever really last forever, and that we all must leave something behind eventually, even if it is something our whole lives have revolved around. Did you find it poignant when filming came to an end? What realisations did you have when you finished making ‘School Life’, or even throughout its’ filming?
I think we were as sad as some of the children, to be honest. It was the end of something special for us too, we had grown very fond of many in the Headfort community, and we knew we’d probably never see most of the children again, or indeed have a reason to hang out at the school. Of course, with an adult lens, you know that everything does come to an end, but you also know that there are other adventures around the corner. In terms of what we learnt, I think we learnt a great deal from John and Amanda about how to relate to children, trust them, not to talk down to them, and to realise that each one of them is different. All children are curious and tapping into that curiosity it what education is about.
Finally, what kind of conversations did you want to inspire when making this documentary? It certainly forced me to think inwardly, and reflect on my own experiences while at school: the dreams I had, and the friends I dedicated my time to. Did you find yourself thinking about your own time as a primary student, and did you want to encourage viewers to consider the impact that school had on their childhoods, too?
I think my generation were lucky in that we enjoyed a huge amount of freedom. We left the house in the morning and returned when we were hungry. I don’t think that happens much anymore. I suppose what we’d like people to reflect on is that there are many things for our own childhood that are worth hanging on too; like being outdoors, climbing trees, reading books. We’d like audiences to reflect on the importance of childhood and the importance of investing in our children’s childhood. The power of creating situations where children are free to discover for themselves who they really are, cannot be underestimated. Happy children thrive, learn and overcome all sorts of challenges, once they’re having fun and find themselves in a nurturing environment.
We’d also like the audience to fall in love with our main characters, and to be lost in admiration at how passionate they are about teaching. They are delightfully unconventional and eccentric: Amanda with her eyebrow piercing, John with his wild hair and casual dress, but they are 100 percent committed to their teaching and the children in their charge.
The film celebrates both their lives, and their devotion to teaching and raising children. It celebrates true vocation and I believe that this aspect of teaching is often missing and forgotten. This film was made against the backdrop of teachers in Ireland going on strike over extra hours of supervision – somewhere between fair wages and vocation, we’ve lost sight of the importance of inspiring teachers and the overwhelmingly positive effects they can have on society as a whole.
SCHOOL LIFE is in cinemas now and at Picturehouse Cinemas nationwide 14th November www.schoollife.ie
By Hannah Ryan