Neasa Ní Chianáin and David Rane’s observational documentary, School Life, is an intimate look at the daily life at Headfort, a centuries old primary Irish boarding school. The school is run by John and Amanda Leydon, who instruct their young students on a the usual range of disciplines – math, science, languages, sport, and music.
School Life captures the teachers and students throughout their daily activities, paying equal attention to the not only the details of their quotidian lives, but also the school’s impressively interactive pedagogy. Education matters at Headfort, and teachers refuse to shyly run away from even the most contentious political issues of the nation. One particularly remarkable moment involves one of the teachers facilitating a discussion between students on the issue of legalizing same-sex marriage in Ireland, a delicate and polarizing issue in the overwhelmingly Roman Catholic state.
Aesthetically, School Life’s content and mode recall Frederick Wiseman’s documentaries. Like Wiseman’s films, School Life refuses to rely on interviews and filmmaker interventions to provoke the students and teachers. Though this artistic choice results in a centreless, unfocused documentary that seems to frequently reach for a narrative thread but falls short of the mark. The film seems constantly in search for a purpose, but it never quite finds its footing.
Regardless, the likable and relatable subjects of School Life make it a charming look at primary education in Ireland.
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Mark Barber: @WorstCinephile