School Spirit: Neasa Ní Chianáin and David Rane’s School Life Teaches Finding the Extraordinary in the Ordinary

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It’s 2017, and as the world grapples with catastrophes, political unrest, and a general sense of despair, hanging on to hope everyday has increasingly become a tall order.

Children have always held the promise of becoming the antidote to our mistakes, but also the victims of them as they inherit a planet in disarray. It’s precisely because of the times that Neasa Ní Chianáin and David Rane’s documentary School Life (previously titled In Loco Parentis) comes as a warm injection of optimism and as proof that there might still be a chance for us to mend things.

In their personal search for the right school for their children, the filmmakers came across Headfort, the only boarding school in Ireland for children ages 7 to 12, and one of the few institutions not affiliated with Catholic church—a rarity in the country. Observing the day-to-day activities and progressive teaching style, they also discovered John and Amanda Leyden, a married couple that has been teaching there for over 45 years. Their devotion to educating young children, and how students reciprocate that passion, makes for a endearing experience that will restore your faith in mankind.

MovieMaker met with Chianáin and Rane to learn about observational documentary, the invaluable, yet undervalued contributions of educators, and looking at the mundane for inspiration.

Students at the Hogwarts-like Headfort in School Life

Carlos Aguilar, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): You have made several films about very peculiar Irish characters. Is that something you want to focus on as the central figures in your work?

Neasa Ní Chianáin (NC): No, I don’t think it’s ever about a peculiar character. I think it’s about somebody who inspires you in some way. We like finding the specialness in the ordinary, if that makes sense.

David Rane (DR): We like finding unique worlds, and taking our audiences into a world. We made a film in Northwest Donegal 10 years or so ago, which was about a bachelor farmer who was absolutely the worst farmer in the world. He kept losing his animals. It was a very, very funny film, and it was a world people wouldn’t normally see, and wouldn’t get into, so that’s what we like.

MM: How did you get into this particular world, this school, and how much time did you spend with these characters?

NC: It was a search for a school for our own children. That’s how it began. We were looking for a more diverse education, a much broader education than was being offered in the small rural school where we lived. We started casting the net, locally at first, and then we had to go wider and wider, because there’s very little choice if you live in a rural community.

DR: Also, 95 percent of schools in Ireland are Catholic, and the rural schools are very controlled, usually by the local priest. We’re not Catholic, and we wanted our children to have a wider education. We were in a small fishing and farming community, and we wanted them to meet more people. We found the Headfort school on their website and what interested us about it, as parents but also as filmmakers, is that we both went to boarding school. Neasa had a pretty good time and enjoyed it, and I had not such a good time. I was seven and my parents lived in Nigeria, and I was sent to the U.K. at a very young age, and I saw my parents once a year on summer holidays. So we were interested in what a 21st-century boarding school would be like, and how much it had changed since we were in boarding school.

NC: What attracted us the most was the headmaster’s letter on the website to potential parents. He spoke about how the happiness of the child was at the core of the education, and we thought that was a really great starting place for educating a child.

Headfort teacher John Leyden gives students a music lesson

MM: How much do you think it influences education and the life of children when they’re educated with a Catholic mentality?

DR: In Ireland, the Catholic schools would have been traditionally run by religious orders, so you’d have Jesuit schools, or schools run by different orders of nuns. But that’s changed, so like any country, there are good Catholic schools and there are schools that are perhaps not so good. It wasn’t really about that, so much.

NC: For us, it was more about acknowledging that there are many beliefs. There are non-believers and believers. The ethos of Headfort is that everyone is equal. It doesn’t matter what kind of background you come from. That is the most important thing that’s instilled in the children. We are all equal. Whether you’re the grounds man, whether you’re the headmaster, you treat everyone with equal respect, and I think that’s what we were looking for: something that was more inclusive than maybe some other kinds of doctrines.

DR: But also a place where children were given a lot of freedom. Not to ever be in danger, but just allowed to do things that we used to have as children. I used to climb trees, but according to UNICEF, 80 percent of children nowadays have never climbed a tree, which is quite staggering. At Headfort, the children are allowed to go into the woods, climb trees, build forts, and have pretend wars with each other. Their childhood is extended in a way that doesn’t really happen in other schools, where health and safety is always a major issue, and academics are pushed very hard. Children are not allowed to be children anymore, and we discovered that at Headfort, children were encouraged to be children for longer.

NC: They were given the space and the freedom to discover whom it is they were, and where their potential lay. If you weren’t academically minded, you could find something in the art room; you could find something in theater or music or sport. There were all of these possibilities laid out for the children, and whatever they were good at, they were encouraged, and they were praised for that. For us as observers, it felt like all of the kids were able to find their little spot where they could excel.

John and Amanda Leyden have taught at Headfort for 46 years

MM: Did you initially know you wanted to focus your attention on these two teachers who have dedicated their lives to education?

DR: The concept of the beginning is a strange one for us because the process was so long. We moved from the Northwest of Ireland to Kells to live next to the school; our children attended as day pupils, they were never boarders in the school. We spent a whole year researching, just getting to know the staff and the parents, and the pupils themselves.

NC: We spoke to a lot of alumni, the 50-year-olds, the 40-year-olds, the 30-year-olds, and we asked them all about their experiences, what Headfort was like for them, and it was John and Amanda’s names that kept coming up because they had been there for 46 years teaching. We knew that they would be important. If we captured the school, they would be important to have as main characters.

DR: But during the research, we didn’t really see them as the main characters. They were very important and an essential part of the school, and they were facing retiring soon, so there was a poignancy to a couple who had committed their whole lives to the school and the vocation. But until we literally started filming, year one was research, year two we started filming proper, and then we saw the magic that they had with their children, the love of the children, the compassionate way that they worked with them, and slowly we started going, “These two are wonderful, and they’re going to be a big part of our film. Still, not necessarily the main characters, but a big part.”

Leyden laces up a student in School Life

MM: Did this change or broaden your perspective on how important educators are in shaping the next generation? I was very impressed by the fact that John and Amanda were embraced modern trends and songs in order to connect with the children.

NC: Oh absolutely. I think for us, the biggest thing was realizing that every child is different, and every child has different potential, and it’s trying to discover what that potential is was the most important thing, and then giving them the space to find their little niche. In John’s band room, we don’t spell it out, but there are all of these different levels in the band room. If you can’t be a musician, you can audition to be an artist. If you’re not good at art, you can become a carpenter, and if you’re not good at carpentry, or any of those three key areas, you can be a cleaner. And the thing is, the cleaners, they don’t stay as cleaners for the whole year. They come in as cleaners, and they get a chance to kind of dabble and discover.

DR: We hear this all the time, “I wish I had been taught by John and Amanda Leyden.” I think everyone probably has a teacher in their past who they go, that person really influenced me, really had a huge impact on me, and I think that’s what we tried to capture. That sense that, here were two teachers who could impact on children and influence children, but in a very connected way, emotionally connected to them.

MM: How do you become a fly on the wall when you’re dealing with shooting children during school days? You clearly don’t want them to “act” in front of the camera, but you can’t be entirely non-intrusive.

DR: Funnily enough, that was the easiest part. It’s party to do to the fact that the children were quite young. The children at Headfort are between 7 and 12, maybe 13, and at that age, they’re not self-conscious. Teenagers would have been much more self-conscious. They forgot about us. The first couple of weeks, they played up a little bit, and wanted to act up in front of the camera, or they’d look at the camera, but our children were in the school, so we got a room in the school where we were allowed to leave our equipment and go and sit and have a cup of tea, so we actually went to school ourselves every day. So the kids knew us as “the filmmakers,” but also as the parents of two students, and they knew we were there for the long haul because we were there every day. They just forgot about us, and that was just magical. It was just the two of us. Neasa did camera, and I did sound, so they just accepted us as being there. It was great.

Hedfort School in Kells, Ireland

MM: In the film there was no big chunk of text at the beginning explaining what we are about to see. We also don’t see the names of the kids popping up on the screen every time they come on, or any other doc conventions.

DR: We wanted it to be 100-percent observational, and we wanted it to feel like a fictional film, like a narrative film. Although it’s absolutely truthful, we wanted an audience to be completely immersed in that world, and the minute you put up those title cards, you pull an audience out of that feeling of being in that world. Right through the editing process, we thought, “Oh god, did we get this right? Do we even need a card saying Headfort School is the last remaining primary boarding school in Ireland?” We thought, no. We’re going to drop people into this world, and let them experience what we experienced.

MM: Considering what is happening in the U.S., I think the film is a great example of the idea that nobody is born hating anyone. Hate is taught. The children in your film discuss controversial issues from a point of view of acceptance and non-judgment. Educators and parents can shape young minds in a positive way.

NC: Exactly, because kid’s opinions always come from the parents. Kids have a great sense of justice, and it’s about bringing that to the fore in this type of environment. That’s what struck us as well, how these children accepted difference. How Eliza was completely accepted as the child who didn’t speak, and they didn’t mind. They included her in all of the group activities, and then you see slowly, slowly as the year goes on, how she just suddenly blossoms at the very end of the school year. A child like her may have been bullied in another school because she was different, and you see all the whole community of kids and teachers, they all just support her and accept her for who she is, and you see how that just shines through at the end. That’s an important lesson, this lesson of acceptance. Accept people for being different, because that’s who we are, that’s what being human is, we’re all different, and if you can teach that to children at that age, hopefully they will carry that through them for the rest of their lives.

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1 Comment

  1. Tommy G Warren / Spiderwood

    September 12, 2017 at 6:50 pm

    “Sense of despair and hanging onto hope everyday…” will become a growing issue, especially where young people sense, see and hear the worry and concern in parents, teachers, peers and on television shows. I suspect that type emotions will continue to develop into a growing problems if “We the People…” don’t pull together better Political Leadership that can and will bring this growing issue to the forefront of concern and lead by example! Just sayin’

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