I don’t know how many times I’ve said it this year, nor how many more times I’ll get to say it, but 2017 feels like the year of the documentary. Every single one I’ve seen this year has been of a truly incredible standard – Quest, Work, The Lure, Strong Island along with the three I reviewed for Vulture Hound – Step, The Farthest and Bunch of Kunst. And now, School Life.
Such a disparate group of films, with wildly different topics and foci and yet, perhaps rather surprisingly, all united – each used the camera to show its subject without judgement and enforced message. Instead there’s an infinite amount of affection and admiration. School Life is no different, and in fact is probably the most literal in terms of showcasing the wonderful impact affection and admiration can have upon its recipients.
An observational documentary, showcasing a menagerie of moments during an academic year at the only primary-age boarding school in Ireland, we follow two inspiring teachers who have taught at the school for over four decades. They, a married couple by the names of John and Amanda, have been shaping the minds of 7-12 years olds for nearly half a century. They’ve taught and inspired countless students over the year, but now they’re coming to their end of their tenure they’ve got big things to consider. When would be the right time to retire? What will keep them going if they’ve not got teaching? And have they learning just as much from the children as they’ve been learning from them?
The school life of School Life isn’t a typical one – there’s lessons in rock (of the music variety), English lessons that are as haphazard as they are brilliant and even, at one point, a restaging of an Olympic Opening Ceremony parade of athletes. It wouldn’t be insincere to use the term ‘love’ to describe either the teaching or the learning at Headfort – it’s present in every interaction. There’s the sense that play and experience is at the centre of this self-contained world, a place that seems weird yet wonderful in its eccentricities.
Therefore the style of the documentary reflects the life at the school, a life that seems like it’s at threat of dying out – a relic of a time that is pre-Ofsted, pre- teachers’ pay progression and pre-lesson plans. It’s unrestrained, freewheeling and unconstructed. In many ways it’s the opposite of Channel 4’s multiple ‘Educating…’ series as it doesn’t follow a formula, there aren’t any real dramatic moments or stand-offs and, there’s not always resolutions to the events that arise. A new student is suffering from homesickness, the school band is flat and there’s debate about when’s the best time for students to pull the traditional prank. Some things get answers, others disappear as quickly as they arose.
That’s life at Headfort – immersive, intimate and charming. Just like this documentary.
Dir: Neasa Ní Chianáin, David Rane
Scr: Etienne Essery, Neasa Ní Chianáin, David Rane
Prd: Angelo Orlando, Montse Portabella, David Rane, Efthymia Zymvragaki
DOP: Neasa Ní Chianáin
Music: Eryck Abecassis
Run time: 80 minutes
School Life is in UK cinemas from Friday 13th October.