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

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


MM: How do you structure a film like this? It’s finite, because we get to the end of the school year, but you have to make a lot of decisions about what to show and what’s relevant. What was that editing process like?

DR: We had a lot of footage. We filmed over two years, and then we decided in the editing process to use the second year for chronology, but also because children change from year to year, and it was going to be complicated blending two years. We didn’t have a clear narrative structure until we started the editing process. The film was definitely found in the editing suite, but we did know that John and Amanda’s arc was there. Right through the film, we knew about their possible retirement.

NC: At the beginning of the year, Amanda was actively looking for a house to move away from the school, but John couldn’t retire. The very idea of leaving the school is just an impossibility for him. That’s how the film opens, with this discussion of whether Amanda is well enough to keep teaching, and if she’s happy enough to keep teaching, because they were 69 and 70 when we filmed. A lot of people would have had to retire 10 years before that, but because it is the school that it is, as long as they are physically capable of doing it, and as long as they are interacting with the kids and the kids are getting something from them, they’re allowed to continue teaching, because they have amazing teaching left in them.

DR: We took 450 hours of footage, and pretty much documented all of it, and made notes on all of it, and got it down to 25 to 30 hours of what we thought were the strongest scenes and the most emotional scenes, and inevitably, John and Amanda were in many of those scenes. Then we decided on the characters, the children that we wanted to feature. We obviously had more than three that could have been in the story, but those three were all taught by John and Amanda, and they all had character arcs that finished positively, and that was very important for Neasa and me. We’re dealing with very young children. We had the trust and the permission of the parents, and we wanted those stories to end positively, and not leave a child in a negative space, so when they went on to their next school, they would be seen as the child who was always in trouble, or whatever. So those character arcs were found in the editing, and they worked with John and Amanda’s story, so the film came together around that. Dermot Dix has an overarching story as the headmaster who leads the school and guides them as well, and that was very important to the final structure.

MM: You mentioned it was meant to be observational. What were some of the documentarians that you referenced, or the visual style that you wanted to employ? And what are the challenges in that style?

DR: Both of us are big fans of documentaries of the observational style anyway, so we would have watched a lot of Pennebaker and Weisman and Maysles Brothers, and then more recently, people like Kim Longinotto. The challenges of the observational style are obvious.

NC: It requires time. It requires a lot of investment of time, and it requires building relationships with people, because to get that level of intimacy, which is what we always search for in our work, it’s not just the surface. You’ve got to get right underneath and try to understand what’s behind the façade. Because it was just David and me filming for most of the film, we could invest that time. Had we been paying a film crew every day, no budget could have covered that. That’s the way we like to work. We’re more interested in really penetrating a world, rather than just seeing it from the outside. We wanted to be part of it.

DR: We set certain rules. In the edit, there was the rule of not leaving a child with a negative character arc, and we also decided not leave the school in the filming. We never left to go back to a child’s home with the parent, for example, and even when we were in John and Amanda’s house, which was within the school grounds, we never left the school grounds. Imposing those rules on ourselves as filmmakers, I think that really helped.

NC: And we had a big question as well: Is there such a thing as a surrogate family? That’s how we structured the film in the end, because we really did feel like this was a genuine, actual surrogate family. This community is very tight, and they will continue to keep those relationships well after they leave the school. We’ve seen that, with Olivia, the gap student who comes back to help John in the band room. She represents many, many Headfort kids who come back in between college, or in between secondary school and going on to college, or some of them come back when they’ve just finished their degrees, and they just want to hang out and revisit their childhood, and they get involved in the mechanisms of the school. The younger children love that, because they love listening to all of the stories of what it was like in the ’70s, what was it like in the ’80s. With John and Amanda, there’s a well-worn path to their house of ex-students coming back to spend time with them. Any day, you can see a 50-year-old in there or a 20-year-old, hanging out with them, and I thought, “That’s not normal.”

DR: It goes the other way, too. John and Amanda remember every child who’s passed through their care. We would encounter people who’d come up to after festival screenings at Sundance or Sydney Film Festival, and they’d say, “I went to that school,” and we’d say, “What’s your name?” They’d say, “John,” and they might be a 50-year old, and I’d send John a text, and I’d say, “This guy came up to us, and this was his name.” He would reply, “Oh yeah, he was a great kid,” or “He was really good at art.” He has whole stories and he would remember them. He says, “They are one of ours,” and he doesn’t mean one of John and Amanda’s kids, but one of the school’s kids.

MM: Do you feel that documentarians perhaps overlook very interesting human stories that might on the surface seem mundane?

NC: For me, it is always about finding the extraordinary in the ordinary, because I have very little interest in sensational stories or celebrities. That does not interest me in the slightest. I want to know about ordinary people just getting on with what they’re doing in their daily lives, and you always find extraordinary people who make a difference. That’s an important message to put out there, because we all play our part, and we can all shape things and make things a little better, and contribute to elevating our communities, our societies, our countries, whatever. MM

School Life opens in theaters September 15, 2017, courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

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  1. “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’

  2. Penni Kimmel says:

    Watched “School Life” when it first appeared on Hulu, then again last week. Started my own Friend-Reviews to let (nearly) everybody I knew why I thought they would like it. And some to let people in the business know I’d discovered the difference between a wise and wide-open-minded critic like Turan in the L.A. Times and an obtuse pedant like the idiot in the N.Y. Times.

    I was fortunate enough to attend two Headfort-sort-of-like schools, an experimental pre- and elementary school attached to Stevens Institute of Technology, and Jersey Prep (aka Jersey Academy), both schools now defunct. Presuming I required some “experience with normal public school” (the other definition of “public,” as you know), I was sent to P.S. 25 for 7th and 8th Grades (a disaster for all concerned: one home room teacher insisted that my name was not a “real” name and called me Penelope, a name I detested and would not answer to, until my parents intervened with the principal. They didn’t quite know what to do with me (and there was no Amanda to share and stimulate my imagination and no John to make me sit up and get on with it, so I was taken out of class and sent to the library where I spent most of the rest of the year reading everything in it, including the teachers’ text books for each grade that were stored in a closet, and writing comments about each. Eventually, it was discovered that I’d done all the 7th grade work and could pass 8th grade tests, so “skipped” to 8th.

    I entered my first Hogwarts/Headfort at 13, Jersey Prep (Preparatory Academy) was a mix of other bright undisciplined self-starters like myself: a few who had been expelled; what were called “one-handers” (kids who had extreme talents or skills in one area, whether art or math made no difference), but who were deficient – for graduation purposes – in all the others; rich kids who needed special tutoring; and a smattering of ex-GIs. The latter were veterans of the Korean War on the “GI Bill” (paid through college). They were in their 20s, some married and starting babies and/or with night jobs. Grown-ups. Grim. Scared. I made a friend. He painstakingly tutored me through math, up into calculus; I fed and later feasted him with literature from Narnia #1 (which he read aloud to his wife), to Lord of the Flies to, of course, Shakespeare (he “got” Merchant of Venice and the Henry’s just find, but not Midsummer Nights Dream). I never came to understand football. Comprehending one another’s peers was out of the question but he made me a student of life and his wife sent me a letter several years later saying I had made him a specially fine father.

    Last – and I promise I will pull my fingers from the keyboard soon (this is all for me, anyone – your fault for not putting on a word limit!) – came one of the world’s (then) finest colleges, Bennington with a faculty of teachers who were proficient, some famously, in their own subjects, an immense amount of writing, reading, dance, music, deadlines, late-night snacking and conversation, no curfews (but being late or absent for a class next morning was verboten), and no grades. The latter increased the pressure because it took away the ease of comparison. You started at your own zero level, saw a faculty member who supported and encouraged, but also oversaw, the week’s work. You couldn’t settle for a simple grade or slip back — no, you were expected to go forward, onward, upward. No more easy A’s or coasting through a course on average work because the others were done better, the improvement needed to be across the board. Thus did we learn to evaluate ourselves, discipline our work (and play), think outside the box before the boxes were invented, and show up for lectures as if we were (as we would be shortly) at work, earning our livings. Good grounding for life and for spending the rest of life learning, studying, teaching.

    There now! I feel much better even though I didn’t have John and Amanda (though the high school principal did approximate Headfort’s Head.

    Two things then: Will a DVD of the film ever be available? I only have Hulu for a short time (a year’s gift from a generous friend) but I won’t be keeping it because I don’t pay for advertising. No Amazon; no iTunes. Also I have friends – all between the ages of 76 and 93 – who would love to see it and to keep a copy for themselves.

    Second, and probably even less likely than the DVD: Is there a copy of the first film around? The one about the farmer?

    “School Life” goes up on my Favorite Films List – one I started about 40 years ago. The last one to go up before that was Paul Verhoeven’s “Elle” (just so you know what odd competition you have). It’s not a “Best” films list. I give no grades. They just have to improve over time . . . .

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