Director Neasa Ní Chianáin on School Life
Full Frame is proud to present the following Q+A with director Neasa Ní Chianáin. School Life will screen for free on August 31 as part of the Full Frame Road Show Summer Series, presented by Capitol Broadcasting Company, Inc. and American Tobacco Campus. The free ticket reservation window opens to First Team on Monday, August 28 at 9 am, followed by Spotlight Members on Wednesday, August 30 at 9 am and the general public on Thursday, August 31 at 9 am. See the Event page for more details.
For more than 40 years, John and Amanda Leyden have taught children at Headfort, a rare Irish primary-age boarding school. When the film opens, the new school year is just beginning. Boys and girls bid farewell to their parents, the pangs of their uncertainty palpable. But the air of possibility hovers above the creaking floorboards—here, there is potential for each and every child. Over the course of a year, we observe the wonder the Leydens bring to their classrooms and roll with the joys and challenges that the changing seasons bring their young pupils. The film also captures the essence of the spaces they occupy—most poignantly a band clubroom where John spends hours desperately coaching inharmonious musicians through pop song melodies. Throughout, the couple delicately navigate the needs of their young wards, sharing the occasional cigarette while they discuss the intricacies of instilling both scholastic rigor and emotional support. With grace and humor, this vérité portrait submerges us in the ebb and flow of this special place and two teachers at the heart of its magic.
Q: This film establishes such a distinct sense of place. What attracted you to Headfort and specifically, the two main subjects John and Amanda?
A: We (co-director David Rane and I) were interested in Headfort because it was the last remaining primary boarding in Ireland. All the other preparatory schools had shut down. Our interest was in the idea of a surrogate family and questioning if an institution could truly deliver such a level of care. From the very beginning of our history with the school, it did feel like a little oasis, a world unto itself. We were intrigued that many of the teachers lived on site and very quickly we decided that the camera would never leave the school. Students and parents would come and go, but like our main protagonists, some things remained constant in the school.
It took us quite some time to get John and Amanda on board. They had no interest in us as filmmakers and they didn’t like the idea of a film being made about the school. In our research though we spoke to alumni from many decades, and John and Amanda’s names kept coming up in conversation. They had been teaching in the school for 46 years and evidently had left their mark on many of the past pupils. We knew that they were essential characters if we were to make an accurate portrait of the school. Once they agreed to participate in the film, our story really came alive. Later in the edit, it became very clear to us that they were our main protagonists, and so the film became more focused on them, although we had shot with many other members of staff.
Q: Can you describe the filming process? The teachers and students seem to never notice the cameras. How did you establish a sense of trust and invisibility?
A: Because we wanted to film observationally, we knew we had to become part of the school furniture so that when we filmed we would not become a distraction. We worked as a very small crew—I did cinematography and David did sound. We asked if we could have a room in the school where we could retreat to when we weren’t filming. That way, the school community just accepted us as part of the daily routine and we avoided becoming a distraction, or putting too much focus on any one particular day. Of course, we also spent a lot of time getting to know staff members and children. I think good observational filming is hugely dependent on the relationship the filmmaker builds with his/her characters/protagonists—the better your relationship, the more trust you have in each other. The more people trust you, the more they let you into their world or circle, and it is easier to ‘disappear.’
Q: The tone of the film balances quiet moments with the occasional eruption of youthful discord. How did you work with the footage to set this alchemy?
A: This eruption of activity and chaos is a natural part of the school timetable. Everything is set into motion by a particular time. This was something we wanted to reflect in the film, but not in a very regimental way. When you spend time in a school, you really notice the oscillation between calm, empty corridors and then a sudden shrill noise of the bell sounding, and life pouring back out into the once silent corridors. Children also have a certain energy, they move quickly, they change from subject to subject, emotion to emotion—and then comes periods of calm. We knew we wanted to play with this synergy in the edit. When filming, we shot wide shots on tripod, but mostly we went handheld while filming in amongst staff and children. The final edit is quite speedy, there’s very little lingering, and I think that’s what school life is like—it’s in a constant state of change, sometimes dramatic and sometimes quietly invisible, but it is always changing because time is ticking.
About the Directors
Neasa Ní Chianáin has directed four feature documentaries. Her films, which have been screened all over the world and have won awards at many international film festivals, include Fairytale of Kathmandu, which premiered at IDFA, The Stranger, which premiered in Semaine de la Critique at Locarno, and School Life (In Loco Parentis), which premiered at IDFA. Neasa is a co-founder and director of the Guth Gafa International Documentary Film Festival.
David Rane has produced award-winning documentary feature films including Fairytale of Kathmandu and The Stranger, and animated films such as the BAFTA Award–winning Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. His company, Soilsiú Films, is a regular recipient of Creative Europe funding. David is a co-founder and director of the Guth Gafa International Documentary Film Festival.