What makes a good documentary? Is it the learning you gain from watching? The desire to act after seeing it? The sense of injustice? Can it be good without any of those?
School Life is probably one of the most difficult documentaries I’ve ever been tasked with reviewing. It’s not exactly making my life easy, let’s put it that way.
At its heart I guess you would say it follows an older British couple who are coming to the end of their long-standing careers, having taught at the Headfort school in Ireland for 46 years.
However, you could equally say it’s about the school itself, or the school band, or Eliza, a shy and quiet girl who is extremely clever but hardly speaks, or Ted, a dyslexic boy who doesn’t let it stand in his way, or Florian, a troubled pre-teen model who arrives at the school late.
School Life covers so much in its short 1.5-hour run-time that, in the first 30 minutes or so, I was immensely confused as to what was going on.
Co-writers and co-directors Neasa Ní Chianáin (The Stranger, No Man’s Land) and David Rane (It’s All In The Jeans (Short)) take the mantra of letting what’s happening on screen tell the story to new levels.
No voiceover is provided, no on-screen captions, no-one looks into the camera and explains what’s happening. We are truly flies on the wall at this international boarding school with pupils from as far afield as South Korea and Russia and as close to home as London, Spain and France.
The 18th Century house that is the school provides a remarkable backdrop with our teaching couple, John and Amanda Leyden, living in a small house on the grounds.
John teaches music and maths and Latin amongst others. Whilst Amanda seems to teach English and drama. Both are immeasurably passionate about getting the best for the pupils and help each other out with problems they are facing.
John makes it his mission to turn the shy and retiring Eliza into someone who ‘won’t be standing five-yards behind everyone else’. It’s wonderful to see and I recommend you watch it to see if he succeeds.
Amanda has a soft-spot for Ted, panicking immensely when she learns he may not be around to play the ghost in her play because of his confirmation taking place around the same time.
The school is fantastic to see. It treats the pupils like adults, not children. Most of them are yet to turn into teenagers and yet we see them handling power-tools and roaming into woods, climbing trees etc. Things I imagine school boards anywhere else would have kittens over.
The lessons we do see appear hap-hazard and more debates than anything. One centring around the recent Irish Government decision on gay-marriage, and some debates about the existence of god.
John has a very dry sense of humour with the pupils, some of which you get the sense flies over their head. It’s not malicious though and it’s extremely heart-warming to see the genuine love and warmth that both he and his wife have for the pupils.
When the final day of the school year comes and many pupils are heading off to places like Eaton and Harrow, tears abound. If it doesn’t move you, I’d be surprised.
School Life is a wonderful, warm and witty documentary that you have to see to fully grasp. It may confuse at the start but I urge you to stick with it and you’ll be hooked. A job well done all round.
School Life is in cinemas from 13th October
From the US