Saturday 14 October 2017

Between the walls: "School Life"

School Life is a bit of a charmer. It's just possible that documentarists Neasa Ní Chianáin and David Rane found themselves watching Être et Avoir a few years ago and wondering "why don't we have anything quite like this?" And so it was they travelled to Headfort, a boarding school deep in the Irish countryside, in order to turn their cameras upon the kind of activity that goes on in schools across the land, every day of every term. Above all, they honed in on John and Amanda Leyden, married, middle-aged teachers who live on site, presiding over a smattering of youngsters from broadly diverse backgrounds, many of whom are negotiating their first, formative weeks and months away from home. Though Mrs. Leyden's pierced eyebrow is a novelty, here are educators who - unlike, say, Michelle Pfeiffer in Dangerous Minds or Hilary Swank in Freedom Writers - actually look like the people who taught us way back when: John has that flyaway cape of white hair nature reserves solely for learned men and derelicts. (I wouldn't want to cross him; I can't do detention next Saturday.)

The emphasis is on the Leyden's teaching methods, and there is something of the spirit of A.S. Neill's experimental academy Summerhill in the non-prescriptive space they upon up for learning-through-experience. While Amanda has the book-learning down, furrowing her brow upon encountering a copy of The Shining hidden away in one pupils' desk, she also prompts her pre-teens into a debate on the (in Catholic Ireland, doubly controversial) issue of same-sex marriage; John, meanwhile, is most often found encouraging his charges to form bands and do their own DIY in the graffiti-covered, paint-splattered outhouse that passes for Headfort's music room. In short, there is between these walls an element of chaos - the chaos of life itself - which you probably wouldn't find inside your local Ofsted-fearing primary: John's tendency to dole out the occasional, withering "honey" to his female students might raise a non-pierced eyebrow or two, although I was reassured everybody was in safe hands the minute he kicked off an afterschool jam session by spinning Shampoo's "Trouble".

At risk of sounding like a teacher on parents' night, School Life could perhaps do with greater structure. I only gleaned the school's name from a minibus glimpsed in the background; we get a peek at what would appear a highlight of the curriculum - a school Olympics, complete with playing-field opening ceremony - but then have to scurry off to the next class. More drama wouldn't have gone amiss, either: is it that private schools like this only attract well-bred sorts with infinite respect for their elders? (Not in my experience.) Or that the presence of the cameras made these kids too self-conscious to play up? Still, the loose, ramshackle framing arguably mirrors the film's subject: few films have been this alert to the idea that learning can be a fun, collaborative process, and that the best teachers are open to the possibility their charges might teach them something, even if it's just a means to staying young at heart. At any rate, any educators looking on will surely find themselves a new hero in the dryly, affectionately dismissive John, who - after setting aside his full box of teacher's tricks, lighting up a fag, and hearing feet running down a nearby corridor - balefully confesses: "Don't like the sound of that. Sounds like children."

School Life is now playing in selected cinemas.

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