12 October 2017



'Those children whom I like can have a Creme Egg...'

"School Life is as charming, intimate and warm-hearted an observational documentary as you'd ever want to see." LA TIMES
★★★★★ EyeforFilm
Irresistibly charming.” – Huffington Post

Without a doubt, viewers will recognize a beloved figure from their own school years in the ageing and endearingly oddball teachers.”
Fionnuala Halligan, Screen Daily

It’s not hard to be moved. A gentle but keen-eyed documentary”
Guy Lodge, Variety

A DELIGHTFUL CROWD-PLEASER. An irresistibly admiring portrait.”
Neil Young, Hollywood Reporter

If Hogwarts was an Irish boarding school, this would be it; magical teachers in a ‘Muggle’ world.”
Sarah Ahern, Dublin International Film Festival

FINDS POETRY IN THE RAW NATURE OF EDUCATION. The most adorable documentary that Frederick Wiseman never made.”
David Ehrlich, Indiewire

JOYOUS AND HUMANE. A moving, heartwarming look at youth, thoughtful discourse, and the emotional and intellectual power of artistic endeavors.”
Gary Garrison, The Playlist

"Some films, especially documentaries are so charming that you really can’t describe them, and to get the full effect of their charm you just have to take the plunge and see them for yourself, such a film as the new documentary School Life, which charmed people at Sundance and it will do the same for you." Kenneth Turan, LA Times

Stop the presses, folks. Stop the presses, I have news. Big news. Have you ever lain awake nights, worrying yourselves sick that rich people are running out of posh fancy boarding schools in which to stash their snooty primary school-age offspring for nine months of the year? I know I have. It keeps me awake nights for sure.

Then fear not, gentle readers. There's at least one such place remaining in the world. It's called Headfort School, it's in Kells in County Meath and it's run by a rather quirky British couple called John and Amanda Leyden. My God, they're quirky.

Amanda is a dear old duck with an eyebrow piercing and a penchant for Willie Shakespeare which she tries manfully to inculcate to the children in her care. I did like that she was also reading them THE FAMOUS FIVE by jolly old Enid Blyton.

I grew up on a literary diet of Enid Blyton and I was gutted that I never got to attend one of the fictional boarding schools she wrote about in her delightful tomes. Malory Towers and St. Claire's were their names. God, how I loved the Malory Towers books in particular.

How I longed to swim with Sally (I can't swim), play lacrosse with Alicia (I hate all sports), listen to Irene play her latest tune on the piano (I only like hard-driving rock), push the silly conceited Gwendoline in the swimming pool to take her down several pegs and hear some rather cutting home truths from the plain-speaking Darrell (I can't take even the mildest criticism and the truth makes me cry).

Headfort School, which by the way is co-educational, is a bit like Malory Towers, in that they play sports, albeit posh ones like cricket and rugby, and they play music too (drums, keyboards and bass guitar). I didn't see any tuck boxes arriving from home, however, and there weren't any midnight feasts in the dormitory, somewhat to my disappointment.

The 18th century house looks like a gorgeous rambling old stately home. There are horses and dogs knocking about the extensive grounds, which look utterly fabulous when wreathed in early morning mist or gently shrouded in a blanket of snow. I don't know when they filmed the bit where everything was covered in snow, because we haven't had snow like that here in Dublin, anyway, since 2010. Kildare, of course, is a different kettle of fish. Horse of a different colour there entirely.

And as for John, dear readers, as for John...! Well, I'm sure he knows that he's the ringmaster in this particular circus and that the ratio of John appearances to Amanda appearances is about seventy-five percent of air-time to twenty-five percent of air-time. John, no offence, is a tall and lugubrious-looking elderly gent who plays bass guitar slightly and looks and sounds like he's dead inside.

He also looks quite a bit like he belongs in a horror film. I can even tell you which exact kind. You know the films where a young college student goes to a remote old house in the countryside in answer to an ad for babysitters?

Then the guy in the house, the guy that John would be a dead ringer for, tells her in mournful tones that it's really his old mum that the girl is here to babysit but it's all right, she never leaves her room and she won't be any trouble at all, they really just need the babysitter to, like, just stay in the house till they get back from their, um, concert. Yes, concert. Good one.

Then before she knows it, the cutesie-pie babysitter's the central attraction in a ritual sacrifice...? Yeah, those movies, haha. Can I be sued for saying that? I only said that John looks like he could star in a movie like that, not that he actually does. I'll check with my solicitor, by which I mean my mate Gary. Law student, Second Year...

I liked seeing that the children, pre-teens and teens who come from as far away as Tanzania, France, Nigeria, Russia and Spain, are actually encouraged to think for themselves and have lively discussions in class about subjects like same-sex marriage. Naturally, their opinions are not fully formed yet. 'It's better to be gay than single,' says one girl. Well, I knew that there was a stigma attached to being a single female but come on...!

The teacher we see in the film even encourages the kids to question the existence of God as well as the institutions of marriage and monogamy. He makes an interesting point about the animal kingdom, this fella, stating that animals, having mated, don't stay with the same partner for all eternity, through thick and thin and whatever else. True enough.

I forget now if this is the teacher who reminisces at one point (fondly, I thought) of beatings he received from the Headmaster back in the 'Seventies when he was a pupil at Headfort School himself. Yes, that's how long the place has been going for.

Well, hopefully this educator remained well-adjusted and relatively normal after such corrective actions and doesn't need them recreated every second Saturday morning by a heavy-set, whip-wielding woman in a skintight PVC catsuit who answers to the pseudonym of Madame Monique and who will, for an extra few quid, walk on your back with her stiletto-heeled shoes.

Of course, punitive actions such as those remembered by this teacher no longer take place, and rightly so. GOODBYE MR. CHIPS is a very moving and emotional film but the teachers and Headmasters seemed almost to enjoy administering a blistering six-of-the-best to the tousle-haired ragamuffins in their care.

Certainly it appears that they regarded the cane as the answer to all childhood ills. If only they knew, these ancient inculcators, what damage they were causing to fragile adolescent
psyches and what employment they would be generating, in another sense, to future generations of sex-workers. Every cloud has a silver lining, folks...

Anyway, back to SCHOOL LIFE. The kids seem happy enough, I suppose, except for Eliza, a student who appears permanently miserable and fraught with tension. Until, that is, she walks away on Prize-giving Day with nearly every prize in the Headmaster John's arsenal. That cheers her up a bit, but not every day can be Prize-giving Day, sadly.

One sulky little thing called Florrie, whom I think used to do modelling, has come to Headfort in the hope (well, her parents hope and her teachers hope) that the rough-and-tumble of school life will be good for her and that 'horsing around and getting muddy and mucky' with the other kids will knock a few corners off.

Just like in Enid Blyton! Every newcomer to Malory Towers was always getting her corners knocked off, even Darrell Rivers, the heroine. She had as many corners-that-needed-knocking-off as anyone else and Malory Towers was just the place to do it.

It's just my opinion but this little Florrie one only seems to get more miserable as time goes on, however, not less. Maybe she needs more time helping her chums to create an unholy racket in the school rock band, I don't know. What am I, a child psychologist?

On the plus-side, at least she was reading Stephen King's THE SHINING on the sly instead of Ross O'Carroll-Kelly, the Bible here in Ireland for snobby poshos. Amanda was horrified to find Stephen King's finest book in the girl's desk, but me personally, I was mentally cheering the child's innate good taste.

Anyway, at the end of the school year, some of Mummy and Daddy's little darlings have succeeded into getting into Eton or Harrow (only the boys, mind you, do those schools still exclude girls then or what?) and are picked up in Mummy and Daddy's posh silver-grey cars and spirited away for the hols.

How utterly jolly! How spiffing! Let's hope they all have a positively ripping time on Mummy and Daddy's yacht on their way to Mummy and Daddy's holiday home in Mauritius. We can all sleep more soundly in our beds knowing that their feathery little brains are free of all possible troubles.

This seasonal exodus leaves Amanda free to natter to the dogs and John to practise his bass guitar. He might think he's Simon Cowell when he's auditioning teenage girls for the school rock band but it would be a 'no' from me at the moment to his 'Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star' re-mix so he needs to practise, practise, practise. And then pack the guitar safely away where it can never hurt anyone again and take up, oh, I don't know, a spot of gentle croquet or something.

Is Headfort School the real-life Hogwarts, then? Apart from the charming appearance of the old house and grounds in Winter, I didn't really see any sign that such was the case. So any kids that've brained themselves good-style attempting to board their trains via Platform Nine-And-Three-Quarters have done so for nothing. Never mind. Rub a few lovely fifty-quid notes over those bruised little noggins and all will be well again.


Neasa started directing in 2001 with television documentaries. She has directed four feature documentaries, including the award-winning Frank Ned & Busy Lizzie, which won Best Feature award at The Celtic Film Festival 2004 and sold to broadcasters around the world; Fairytale of Kathmandu, which world premiered at IDFA 2007 in the Silver Wolf Competition and was subsequently invited to 25 international festivals and won 3 international awards; The Stranger, which premiered in Locarno FF 2014; and her most recent film, School Life, which had its world premiered at IDFA, 2016, and North American premiere at Sundance 2017, and has been critically-acclaimed in the US, where it was released in Cinemas on 8th September.
David has produced award-winning documentary feature films, including Fairytale of Kathmandu (2007), The Stranger (2014), School Life (2016), animated films, including the BAFTA-winning Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (2002), and short fiction films. His company, Soilsiú Films, is a regular recipient of Creative Europe funding, and has had work screened in France, Germany, Netherlands, Belgium, Finland, and the U.S. David is the founder and festival director of Guth Gafa International Documentary Festival.

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