Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Neesa Ni Chianain.
This is an observational fly on the wall documentary that spends a year at Headfort, the only remaining boarding school in Ireland for primary aged children aged between 7 and 12. Entrenched in a sense of history and tradition, the school itself has been around since 1949 and has a holistic approach to education. The school is situated on an 18th century estate in the idyllic Irish countryside.
Filmmaker Neesa Ni Chianain and her co-director David Rane spent twelve months embedded in the school, and were given an unprecedented level of access to the classrooms, the dormitories and the daily routine of the students. They shot a lot of footage, which has been deftly edited by Myriam Strugulla, who collaborated with Ni Chianain on the 2014 documentary The Stranger. Much of the film’s structure emerged in the editing suite.
School Life focuses on Amanda and John Leyton, two teachers who have been at the school for 46 years. The school’s principal Dermot Dix is a former student who was shaped by the Leytons. Amanda teaches English, and instils in the students a love of reading. She is also rehearsing the students for their performance of Hamlet. John, who looks a little like Christopher Lloyd with his wild hair and mannerisms, teaches music and Latin. He is gruff, abrupt, sarcastic with a dry sense of humour, and while he comes across as cantankerous at times he also has a warm and caring approach to teaching and shaping the students. Ni Chianain creates a wonderful quiet contrast between the two. The couple live in a cottage on the school grounds, but now that they are facing retirement they ponder their future. There are several scenes that depict their domestic life as they drink coffee, smoke, and discuss their students.
The film also focuses on three students, whose stories and narrative arcs emerged during the lengthy editing process. There is Ted, who suffers from dyslexia; Eliza is a shy student who slowly emerges from her shell through her involvement with the school band and Leyton’s gentle and patient encouragement; and Florence is a child model who has come to school for a change and has more worldly experience.
The film’s original title was In Loco Parentis, a fitting title for the documentary which explores the nurturing relationship between teachers and students. School Life has a gentle meandering nature and a lack of sentiment or urgency. There is a lack of narration and little contextual information given to help audiences orient themselves. But it lacks any real insight or depth and is a little unsatisfactory. There was a documentary television series called The Staffroom, which explored the demands placed on teachers and the emotional cost of the profession, which was far more insightful and illuminating.