Like Hotel Coolgardie, this is a documentary that positions us as silent viewers, watching everyday life unfold around us. In School Life, there is no context nor narration, we are dropped straight into a day at Headfort School, a boarding school for primary kids in Kells, Ireland.Framed primarily around married teachers Amanda and John Leyden, who seem to have been there forever, we watch as they try to engage their young students in a love of learning. At night the children cuddle soft toys and cry from homesickness, the dormitory staff whisper and comfort and distract them from their tears.
When John and Amanda are at home, all they talk about is school life; particular students and their hopes for them, the mistakes they have made, when they might retire. Amanda is finding it hard to walk upstairs and is constantly tired. Her teaching style is soft; sweeties and reading The Famous Five out loud. John is taciturn and droll, the twinkle in his eye well hidden and not always understood. He tends to be blunt and feels that the truth is the kindest gift.
There are a few students who we watch; Eliza who rarely smiles and never says a word, Florrie who has had work modelling but has low self-esteem, Ted who is dyslexic and always plays the fool. We see the staff meet to talk about each one and it is clear that they care.
Ultimately, I’m not sure this film has a particular message. If I was to draw anything from it, it would be that childhood is difficult, that living away from your family at a young age makes it harder and that teaching is an inexact science largely practiced by people who care deeply.
The school isn’t particularly unconventional but I saw little technology, few rules and lots of playing outside in forts. It does its best but I can’t help wondering who thinks that sending young kids away to boarding school is a good thing. The teachers try to be stand ins for family but can never provide what parents do.
Have you seen this film? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below.