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Home / Features  / “There’s Always Little Pockets Of Light, And I Think It’s Important To Tell Those Stories.” Interview With SCHOOL LIFE Director Neasa Ni Chianáin

“There’s Always Little Pockets Of Light, And I Think It’s Important To Tell Those Stories.” Interview With SCHOOL LIFE Director Neasa Ni Chianáin

Writer Arlin Golden sat down and talked with Neasa Ni Chianáin, director of the upcoming Irish documentary School Life.

Interview With SCHOOL LIFE Director Neasa Ni Chianáin

Do you ever have those moments where you just feel like everything is great in the world and that there’s hope yet for our species? Me neither. But maybe the closest I’ve ever come was probably back in April after coming out of a sold out screening of School Life at the San Francisco International Film Festival. The film, which observes the goings on inside Headfort, an Irish boarding school, is as engrossing as it is simple, and more hilarious than anything I’ve seen this year. Director Neasa Ni Chianáin, who made the film in partnership with her husband David Rane, was kind enough to chat with me about her new documentary when she was in town for the festival.

Arlin Golden for Film Inquiry: Thanks so much for taking the time.

Neasa Ni Chianáin: Pleasure.

I really loved the film. I’m wondering if you set out to make a comedy? Or did it just kind of come that way? What was your vision?

Neasa Ni Chianáin: Well, it certainly wasn’t a comedy. We were really curious to see what 21st century boarding school looked like. You know, it took me a while to meet John and Amanda and to know that they would be the main characters. In the beginning it was kind of a portrait of a whole school. And we were there for two years. We had an office in the school, so we were kind of trying to get to know our potential characters. And it took us a year really to get the Leydens on board because they weren’t that interested in a film crew and they weren’t interested…they didn’t think it was a good idea to have a film made about the school.

A year of shooting or a year of just being there and prepping?

Neasa Ni Chianáin: Well I was shooting and prepping and trying to raise funding for the film as well. So we were doing the research and at doing the prepping at the same sort of time. The board and the headmaster let us go in there. But we really had to negotiate the rest of the access ourselves.

OK. I asked about kind of the intention of the comedy because it seems with the editing at some point like, you’re editing for punchlines almost. I remember there was the one scene where one of the students is describing what “gay” means to her,  you “it’s better to be gay than to be single” and then cut. That just seemed like the perfect comedic punchline to that scene.


I mean everyone in the film is such a character unto themselves. Did you feel, you know, pushed towards humor just by the footage you had? I mean I’m sure you have a ton of hours to choose from, how’d you ultimately end up there?

Neasa Ni Chianáin: Yeah, of course, of course. I mean I think it was John that made it. It was his presence and it was his way of being with the children. He’s very dry.


Neasa Ni Chianáin: You know, he’s always pushing them a little bit and he’s just constantly hilarious. So it was John really that turned it into a comedy. It wasn’t our intention; had we focused on a different teacher, you know, we would have just gone with whatever that teacher brought to the film.

But kids are naturally funny as well, though. They’re naturally charming and you know it’s great to you to see how their brains work, how they perceive the world. They have a different type of perception. I mean all, those scenes, it was like we started off we had a 25 hour edit and we kind of broke it down and broke it down and broke it down, and I suppose the comedy helps the pacing, you know, to move on quickly to the next sort of scene. But those scenes would’ve been cut much more open to begin with, and then as we kind of found that the narrative, it became tighter and tighter.

I hope you can release that full version on the DVD or something, that’d be incredible.

Neasa Ni Chianáin: Yeah, we lost an awful lot along the way as well, because…when it became very clear that John and Amanda were the characters, the main characters, that meant everything…the children that became our protagonists had to have a link to them, you know? And we had filmed eighty-five kids and some of the children wouldn’t have had a link to them, so we would have lost a lot of their story lines.

Makes sense. Since you mentioned John as being sort of a driver of the tone…I feel like here in the States some of John’s bluntness might have been seen as overly harsh towards the students, especially by parents. I could see a parent getting sort of outraged that someone would speak to their child like that. Is everyone there sort of just accepting that that’s how he operates?

Neasa Ni Chianáin: I think the older children get John’s dry sense of humour more than the younger ones do. He would be devastated if he thought he really upset a child. And I’ve seen him apologize immediately to a child, if they didn’t get him. You see him in the film talking to Amanda about younger children, he’s irritated by their fizziness when it’s time to go to bed. She explains to him that younger ones just want to play with him because they want to have some fun. She argues that they need to have fun before they are ready to settle down. The older children can read John better – they know when he’s being playful, in a curmudgeonly way, but they also know when he’s being serious and it time for them to hear what he’s saying.

John teaches the top end of the school so he teaches them when they are, 11, 12, 13 year olds. He doesn’t have much interaction with the little ones, except when he’s on playtime duty and bedtime, and that kind of suits him. He likes the grumpy old man image, and he enjoys the children when they are old enough to play with that and answer back in a respectful way. I think most parents get that and realise that children have to learn to interact and negotiate with all kinds of personalities.  And with John, there is no doubt but that he’s always rooting for the child and wants them to grow up to be independent, confident children.

Well he seems like he could also be very sweet towards the younger kids, like the scene where he ties the shoes.

Neasa Ni Chianáin: He is, of course, of course he is. But I think, you know, he’s interested in the kids when they get to this kind of…when they’re a little older, when they get it, when they start to experiment with, like, sort of responding back or giving as good as they get. And he needles them to do that.

I remember like with my own daughter there, he met me one day and he said “Élie was almost naughty in class today. It was wonderful!” Because he’s trying to build them up as confident characters. He’s trying to make them able to stand up for themselves. So he’ll just keep pushing them and pushing them until they kind of get it. “Yes, I can answer back. Once I’m polite, once I’m respectful, I can stand up for myself” and that’s what John tries to kind of give them.

I mean you definitely see that sense of, you know, you think he might feel some personal achievement at the end with Eliza when she finally comes out of her shell, I could see that being a reward unto itself, after a year of sullenness. 

Neasa Ni Chianáin: No absolutely. I mean he will…he stays in touch with… well actually he doesn’t stay in touch, the kids stay in touch with him. A lot of them, when they leave. I mean once they’re a Headfort child they’re always one of his kids. You know, he’ll talk about his 30 year old kids that went through the school, his 40 year olds, 50 year olds. They still stay connected to him and any time you go to their house, like, pretty much every weekend there’s somebody from one of those generations visiting him, catching up, because he’s curious. He wants to know how they’re getting on, because they’re one of his kids.

That’s super special.

Neasa Ni Chianáin: It is! I mean, that’s the thing that really struck me, like “this isn’t normal” (laughs) That kids come back and hang out with their teachers even when they’re adults. And I mean, that’s just the way it is! But they really have that…like I think when I was sort of in there filming and trying to figure out what was the story, we began to see the school as a surrogate family. We began to see the teachers and the staff…like they’re all these different kind of family member type roles. And so the Leydens very much became the grandparents of the school. And for us.

I was kind of interested in that whole idea that a boarding school…you know, it leaves its mark. And this may not be that “traditional” accepted family. but it’s certainly a type of family.

Right. Well can you actually talk about that? I mean the title, you know, “In Loco Parentis” [Note: The title has since been changed to "School Life” for the US theatrical release]


To what extent…I mean I know it’s hard to generalize with the student body being as wide as it is, but, you know, to what extent are the faculty parents to the borders there, and how much of the year are they actually there, absent of their parents and developing that relationship? And is it ever hard? You know, we see everyone sobbing at the end when the school year is out. Is there adjusting back to their actual parents? Is there ever a transition there?

Neasa Ni Chianáin: Yeah. Well no, I mean I think your parents are always your parents, of course. You know there’s nothing to replace your parents. I mean I think it differs. The children are there for varying lengths, like, say the Irish kids. Most of the Irish kids will go home at the weekend, so they’ll go home on a Friday and they’ll be back on a Sunday. For the little ones, a lot of their parents come in on a Wednesday to break up the week for them and they’ll take them out for tea on Wednesday.

As the kids get older, they choose to stay in more weekends. Like, say the older ones will kind of say “are you staying in this weekend? Let’s stay in this weekend!” you know. Especially in the summer terms, when, you know, it’s just fun, because it just becomes a massive sleep over and they get to do all kinds of games and they get to practice their cricket or whatever, their hockey or whatever it is they’re into at the time. So the kids will plan with each other to stay in.

The international kids, they don’t go home as often, but often and they get invited out by Irish parents at weekends. Then every three to four weeks there is a thing called an “exeat weekend”, which is a long weekend where school finishes…there’s a half day on Friday, and then they don’t come back until the following Monday night. And that’s to give a chance to the children who live further away to get home for a significant amount of time. Then say like, the kids from further afield, like say the Korean children, they usually…they don’t see their parents during the term at all. But they have families that kind of look after them and take them for those exeat weekends. Yea, most of the Mexicans would be kind of similar, they’d go to kind of a surrogate family for those weekends. But they get, you know, they form friendships with other Irish kids and they get to hang out in their families.

So yeah, I mean the matrons are very…you know, they play a significant role in the children’s lives, especially the matron that works the weekends, she’s also a trained psychologist, so she’s very, you know, she’s very on top of, like, how they are doing emotionally. She might take some of the girls. like if there’s not many boarders staying in for the weekend. she might say “OK all the girls, you can come and stay in my house for the weekend”, you know?

So it’s a very fluid sort of thing. There’s no sort of like, you know, set way. You might, as a parent, you might get a call from a matron to say “listen, there’s only two kids staying in from third year this weekend. Is there any chance, you know your son is a friend, is there any chance that you’d be free to take him for the weekend?” So it’s a constant dialogue, you know? Do you know what I mean?

Yeah. Yeah, it seems like a community.

 Interview With SCHOOL LIFE Director Neasa Ni Chianáin

source: Magnolia Pictures

Neasa Ni Chianáin: It is! I mean, it is. It’s very…I suppose because it’s small it can be that kind of fluid. But I also think that the kids form very strong bonds with each other, and I think Amanda was kind of alluding to that in the film; about the little ones, like, they are very very close. And I know from talking to the alumni…like we, in our research period, we talked to 50 year olds, 40 year olds, 30 year olds who had been in this school and they kept their friends that they met at 7 or 8 or 9, and they still feature very strongly in their lives. So there is that kind of strong bond that happens between the children as well.

Since you mention that sort of extended community and parents taking in children from international families: How do those international students even find the school?

Neasa Ni Chianáin: It’s word of mouth. Yeah, it’s really word of mouth. I mean it’s not…the school is hardly known in Ireland either. Well I mean it is one of a kind and most people wouldn’t have heard of it unless they know a family member who’s gone or a cousin. But it’s pretty much word of mouth. Like say in Spain, most of the families, they come from Seville and they come from Madrid. And all the families tend to seem to know each other, or have cousins or friends of…it’s always a personal recommendation. Same with the Mexicans. With the Koreans it’s slightly different because there’s an agent now who brings kids from Korea over to Ireland and places them in primary, secondary, and third-level schools, because I think for the South Koreans it’s cheaper to educate their children privately in Ireland than it would be to educate them privately in Korea.

Oh my gosh.

Yeah, it’s quite extraordinary.

So, you know, from the U.S. perspective, I think boarding school is pretty rare. How typical or atypical would you say this is of Irish education?

Neasa Ni Chianáin: Ins secondary schools boarding schools are common enough in Ireland. They’re not…I mean I think in the UK and Ireland there is a tradition, amongst some members of the community, to send their children away to school for boarding. Headfort is the last primary boarding school that’s left in Ireland, the others have all closed down. probably because of lack of numbers. So it’s more usual for people to go to boarding school in secondary school than it is in primary school.

There’s a mix in sort of the people who attend Headfort. Originally it would have been many of the Anglo-Irish, so many of the Anglo-Irish would have sent their children to schools like Headfort in preparation for going to the UK for their secondary school education. But now it’s kind of…that demographic has changed and it’s opened out and it’s more kind of middle class Irish families who maybe lived down the country and they don’t have access to…they don’t have a broad choice of education. Because, like, religion. Catholicism would still have a strong hold on many of the schools and it’s very rare, there are not that many non-denominational schools in the country, and Headfort is a non-denomenational school.

So I guess parents looking for an alternative education would put their kids there as well.

When when you say “alternative”, you mean just alternative to religious…

Neasa Ni Chianáin: Non-religious, yea. But also alternative in that most primary schools in Ireland, like most of the state schools, they’ll have one teacher who’ll teach them of a range of subjects for the year, whereas in Headfort, all that the classes are subject driven. So there’s a different teacher for each subject. Which can be a great advantage in that, you know, it’s like if you have personality clash with one teacher you’re not stuck with that teacher for the whole year, like, you’ll find some teacher that you can have a relationship with or relate to.

And then “alternative”…also I’m wondering…it seems like there’s almost a collaboration between the teachers and the students in terms of the curriculum. I remember one scene, you know, that’s meant to be outside play time. One of the students is just playing a game on her phone and John says “well, you know, just go in and get warm.” It seems like there’s a lot of choice for kids to find what they’re interested in.


What’s sort of the teaching philosophy of the school?

Neasa Ni Chianáin: Yes. There’s no there’s no pedagogy, per se, in the school. The headmaster came from the Dalton School in New York so his classes are very much sort of based around the Socratic method where he encourages the children to learn through discussion and debate, and that’s what the same sex marriage class was, that was an example of his way of teaching. Like John and Amanda obviously bring their own unique forty eight years of experience dealing with children.

I mean, there is a timetable, there’s a strict timetable, but there are play times, and there are certain play times when you have to do sports but then there are times when you can have free games and that means you can go into the woods and do the fort thing if you want. And then…like John, just from his own sort of…music is his thing. And those are not structured, they sort of happen in free time. They happen straight after lunch or at straight after tea, and every day he’ll be in the band room and he’ll open it up to the kids and they’re allowed, you know, the ones that make the audition, they’re allowed to come in and hang out in the band room for half an hour. But it’s a structured time that they can come there.

And then as they get older and more responsible, you know, at the weekend if they say “Sir, can we go the band room” and he will open it up and let them go in and play. But I don’t know if you noticed, in the school like there’s, in the band room, there’s a hierarchy. Like if you don’t make it as a musician you can be a muralist or an artist. If you don’t make it as an artist you can be a carpenter. And then right down to the bottom of the scale is the cleaners, you know? But the cleaners, usually after a term, they manage to move up a little bit up the scale. You usually find some of them playing around on instruments and they might find their way into the band. Yeah. So it’s really nice.

It seems like they just get more bang for their buck out of John and that room, teaching three or four classes at once!

Neasa Ni Chianáin: Yeah. No, I know, I know. I mean that was one of my favorite places in the whole school, was the band room. Just to see how all of that worked. I mean he was just building confidence, really, in those children.

That’s a really visually interesting space too, separate from the school proper. Very much free form, seems like it would foster a lot of creative thinking.

Neasa Ni Chianáin: Yeah. Well I mean the kids run it. The kids run the whole band room. The head carpenter decides where new shelves need to go, if the stage needs to be moved around or, you know. The kids make all the decisions. The murals: the kids decide what it is they’re going to put on the wall. John just brings a whole load of paint and lets them go at it. But he he gives them all the responsibility. The children have to decide if they’re going to set up a new band or not or if there are enough musicians to do that. He always has a head member, like Megan was the head girl, she was the head of the band as well. So she had to make the decision “was this person going to make it into the band or not?” And, you know, he tries to give as much responsibility to the children as he can.

Got it, that’s awesome. So talking about John again, I’m wondering with you and your husband being a married filmmaking team, did that inform at all how you approached John and Amanda as subjects? Or your relationship with them throughout the filming?

Neasa Ni Chianáin: Ehhhhh…No, I mean, well I suppose we socialize a lot with them, and we continue to socialize with them, because really we did become friends. And so you know. Yeah. I mean in that way, yes. They come to our house for dinner, we go to their house for dinner. Our kids always come with us, so I guess we’re invited as a family. Did it inform our…like why we focused in on them?

Not necessarily why, but how.


You know what you chose to film or include or, you know, when you would decide to go over there and spend some time at their cottage as opposed to the class…

Neasa Ni Chianáin: Yeah…Well we had an office in the school. That’s why, Like we knew we just had to be there all the time and be able to react to moments. It wasn’t like, you know, “on Saturday we’re going to come and film with you at home.” It wasn’t like that at all. We didn’t want to work like that because we wanted to feel like we’ve seamlessly sorts of fitted into their lives and whatever it was they were doing and then we can retreat as well when we needed to. So in that way it was very fluid. There was no, like, “we’ve got to go down to their house or not.” Like, we would kind of think “OK well, you know, maybe such and such an incident happened, maybe we should go down.”

We were always invited down for coffee. Like they would be in the school they’d be like “oh, you want to come down for coffee?” if we were around, if they saw us around. And then we’d kind of head off down with them. So it was…I think the fact that we were based there all the time made it a very fluid thing, rather than a formal sort of “today we’re going to film this this and this.” We never knew what we were going to film any day. You know you just try to stay in the loop and listen to what was unfolding and what was happening. You know, I spent a lot of time in the matron’s office, and John was a constant. Because he was always in the school, so he was always somebody that you could kind of just check in on and see what was happening and then decide “OK, maybe there’s something else interesting to film.”

He never gave us like any kind of notice. He didn’t say like “I’m doing auditions today.” He would never do that. We had to show up to see if they were making out doing auditions today. There was no “Oh you better come and film this”. There was none of that. You just really had to be available and stumble on it, you know?

Was that ever a frustration? 

Neasa Ni Chianáin: Sometimes! But you couldn’t. Because you know the thing was like, he’s just doing his thing. That’s it. He just wouldn’t do that, you know? And sometimes he’d play with it. Like sometimes…like I remember one time trying to film with him when he does duty. Like when he’s on duty at playtime, he’s constantly walking around the place, because the kids could be down at the tennis court, they could be out in the field, they could be in the woods. You know, there’s all these spaces that the kids could be hanging out. And he’s just doing a constant circle of the thing. And sometimes he’d like take a really really difficult route through the woods, which was a short cut with branches and climbing over stuff, just to kind of play with the fact that we were there with our brooms and our easy rigs trying to…(laughs) then you just give up and just go “alright. I’ve lost him, he’s gone. He’s moved on somewhere else.”

So since, you know, you were there for so long, you developed a relationship with John and Amanda and the students and the faculty and you had your own children there at the did you approach sort of maintaining distance as filmmakers as opposed to, you know, being a school family?

Neasa Ni Chianáin: Yeah. Yeah, I know, that’s a good question. I mean, like, with the kids we never got super close with any of the children, you know? Like we tried to keep it really…we tried to keep it really really wide. We didn’t want any of the children to know that we were focusing on them, like, we didn’t want to a child to have to carry anything like that. So we filmed things that we knew we weren’t going to use. There’s always an expectation as well of what you should film, or not what you should film, but what people expect you to film. So like say the choir performance. Or you know the actual play performance from the front of the stage. You know, all those kind of things.

What a parent would film.

Neasa Ni Chianáin: Exactly. Exactly. And people expected to see us doing those kind of things. Like sports day. So we did film them but kind of not, knowing, like, this isn’t where we really want to be or need to be.

Like kind of a misdirect, almost.

Neasa Ni Chianáin: Yeah. But it just like, when we did film events like that we also, like say with the plays, school plays, we made them available to parents. So like there was a camera at the back of the stage you could get, you know? So that parents could see…we put those things and gave them to the school and said “OK you can have those.” You can give those to the parents if you want.

And I guess, keep in keeping our distance…I mean it happened automatically. Like with boarding parents you rarely had a chance to meet them anyway, you know? And usually I guess I hid behind the camera a lot as well. Like, I stayed behind the camera a lot. At kind of events, you know, school events or choir events or whatever. Like you can kind of removed yourself from that, from being the parent. And you did have to. I mean I remember my son getting upset one time when he was in a school play. He was like “You know Mom, all the other parents are sitting in the audience and they’re all clapping and smiling at their kids and you’re just like [d[does pantomime of holding a camera] (laughs)

I mean he did get a bit…you know. He says “I just want you to be a normal parent!” Sometimes. Like that just happened once really, over his school play, you know. So I guess, yeah, I guess we were more filmmakers than we were parents in the community I suppose, if you know what I mean.

Did you ever feel…I mean it seems like such a great school, I don’t think that this would ever come up, but did you ever feel like something would happen where “I don’t want to present the school in this light”? And you would just move on to something else?

Neasa Ni Chianáin: Yeah. I mean, like, when the headmaster first kind of broached it we did have a serious talk. I was like “you know if there’s anything you know going on, you know, tell me now.” Because I’m not interested in doing a kind of…you know because most people when they heard like “you’re making a film about a boarding school” they thought “oh god, no. It’s going to be about…”

Bullying or…?

Neasa Ni Chianáin: Yeah. Or abuse, you know, like it’s just going to be…and I just made it really clear in the beginning that I needed to know that. If there was, you know, if we needed to kind of just part company there and then. But I also…like we had a year of my own children being in the school before we committed to making the film. So I was able to kind of see how they got on in the school.

So the first year we weren’t in the school but I was vicariously hearing about the school from my own kids and seeing how they were, you know, sort of blossoming themselves. So that year made us feel very comfortable that we were going into a good…you know. It was a world that we wanted to make a film about, that we were comfortable going into.

In terms of any kind of bullying stories, I mean there’s a Spanish version…there’s a cut where you do see a child is being bullied. I mean, it’s dealt with immediately and Dermot, you know, he’s great. I mean there was just zero tolerance for any of that. I mean genuinely the community, the kids in the school, they got on with each other more like a family and there was just zero tolerance for any kind of child being singled out and bullied. I was very impressed with how they dealt with it. And nothing really happened that thought “oh shit!” you know? “I should have got that.” Or “oh shit, should I film that?” Nothing. It didn’t happen, it didn’t occur. It didn’t occur.

That’s awesome. So since that’s not the type of film you set out to make…in this kind of documentary climate, you know, especially at this festival there’s a lot of really heavy subject matter. You obviously came out of Sundance with the distribution deal, and congratulations on that. How do you feel, this being, you know, a decidedly more lighthearted sort of documentary, entering into this climate, and where you see the film fitting among some of the other films at the festival or that’ll be screening this year.

Neasa Ni Chianáin: Yeah, I mean I think with Sundance…when we got the call from Sundance the programmer just said to us “the world needs a film like this.” you know? Because I think we are so overwhelmed and our problems do seem insurmountable that I think a film like this has a space for at least providing some sort of hope. And focusing people on, like, “if you invest in kids, that is future. Invest in them, and something might happen, something might change” (laughs) We may not have another Trump, or whatever, or Brexit, or whatever, you know.

It is about educating the next generation. And I mean I have made the dark films as well. And I’ve done that and I just feel…And we run a human rights documentary festival in Ireland ourselves, and we, you know, in the programming we’ve always had to… we realized over the years that we had to be careful not to traumatize our audience, you know, too much. Because people are coming out at the end and just watching three or four films and they’re just like, you know, despair.

So I think there’s always space. Because it’s not all…there’s always little pockets of light, and I think it’s important to tell those stories. Because we have to go on.

Is that Guth Gafa?

Guth Gafa, Yeah yeah yeah.

Great festival.

Yeah yeah. Oh, you’ve heard about it?

Yeah! My full time gig is in distribution, so I go over all the lineups to see what’s out.

[a[at this point we went on a tangent about the nitty gritty of documentary distribution, we come back in on the film’s appeal to schools and teachers]em>

Neasa Ni Chianáin: There’s this whole thing of like you know we’re so bureaucratized in schools now with health and safety rules and, you know, what’s refreshing about Headfort is that it can operate on a different level because it operates outside the state system. So people are…you know, the matrons aren’t afraid to hug a child. John’s not afraid to. They can be tactile with the kids. The things like, you know, playing in the woods and being able to climb trees. I mean something like 85 percent of kids in the western world have never climbed a tree. It’s crazy!

Is that a real stat??

That’s a real stat! That’s from UNICEF. It’s either 80 or 85 percent.

Oh my god, that’s boggling.

Neasa Ni Chianáin: It’s like, it’s crazy, it’s nuts! It’s like my kids came from a school where like, suddenly they weren’t allowed to run on the playground anymore in case somebody would fall and hurt themselves. It’s just like, this isn’t nuts! They’re just just like, you know, tying up childhood so that nobody can do anything because it might hurt them or damage them. And I think teachers have been responding to that, and envious of, the freedom that they see in Headfort. Because they want to be like that. They want to have that kind of connection with children, but they can’t. They’re not allowed.

Yeah, there’s something that struck me, is there seemed to be so much trust…or more mutual respect, from the students. It’s like “OK, this is an adult that’s talking to me like I’m not a child, and, you know, because of that I’ll listen to them. I have the respect for them.”

Neasa Ni Chianáin: No, exactly. “I’ll step up to the mark.” Yeah, yeah. No that’s very much how it operates there. And that was just so…for us, like, the transition from the school the children were in to there….like, it was just incredible. And our kids felt so relieved, as well. I mean it had got to the level where there was this culture of “I’m telling the teacher! I’m telling the teacher!” you know, and then they go to Headfort and it’s like “don’t ever tell the teacher.” You know, unless there’s a real danger.

It was just because then the kids were able sort things out themselves and take responsibility and figure it out. And that was just so refreshing for everyone.

It’s that…and I’m not sure how much you might be up on sort of Betsy DeVos and all the stuff we’re going through, but I mean is there anything that you think American schools in particular can take away from the film in terms of education and just how to educate children?

Neasa Ni Chianáin: Yeah but I mean I don’t know anything about the American educational system. Like I have no experience of it so I don’t know what the…

It’s different.


It’s different that Headfort. 


Yeah there’s…well you mentioned earlier “choice” and in certain regions of Ireland there may or may not be a good choice. And that’s sort of a buzz word here. “Choice” being almost a dog whistle for private schools and kind of a move away from public education. Like if you give parents the choice to go to a different school, that they’ll select the private.

You can have it once you pay for it.


Neasa Ni Chianáin: Yeah. Which is not an option because education ultimately should be available to everybody. Yeah. Yeah. No I know. I mean Headfort is a private school, and it is certainly for people that, you know, can afford it, it’s a privilege to be able to send your kid there. But I know that the headmaster…like, he calls himself a Marxist. He would open the doors wider if he can. He does have a system where there’s bursaries for families who can’t pay the full fees, and the year we started filming he just brought in a settled traveling family into the school that we didn’t focus on the kids because they weren’t the story that we were telling, but they’re in the shots, they’re in the classrooms. They were treated like any other child and they were there because the school supported them to be there.

So, you know, he does what he can within the confines of having to run a school like that. They get no state support whatsoever, like every penny comes from the fees to have a staff of, whatever, 12 teachers and god knows how many groundsmen and all that. All has to come from the fees. And the upkeep of the building. So there’s no spare cash. But I mean for us it was…I don’t think the education that Headfort gives is dependent money. I think it’s dependent on attitude.

You know like say the likes of like John Leyden, every single thing in that band room he bought himself, he didn’t have the budget for any of it.

 Interview With SCHOOL LIFE Director Neasa Ni Chianáin

source: Magnolia Pictures


Neasa Ni Chianáin: He bought all of those instruments himself. Parents donated stuff. Kids you know who left the school, parents like donated the drumming kit they’re just not using anymore. All the books that you see in the school, like I mean the place is coming down with books, all those books Amanda has bought herself over the years. Or parents have given books when their kids grow up, they’ve just come in and they’ve given the books to the school because the one thing that they remember is that their kids have become avid readers in that school.

And so even though our film is about a private school, we were really hoping that, you know, the elements of how to reach a child or how to help a child thrive…it’s not about money, it’s about how you treat the child and how you support the child. Does that makes sense?

A hundred percent. (laughs) Yeah. Yeah, definitely. 

Neasa Ni Chianáin: So yeah, and that’s what we were hoping people would take away from it. I mean yes, I know it’s a fantastic backdrop. I mean it’s a stunning backdrop and not every school can have that. But it is the attitude of the teacher that changes everything, and every school can have that.

I think that’s a good note to end on. Thank you so much for taking the time and making the film and congratulations again on the award.

Thank you. Thank you, that’s great, cheers.

 Interview With SCHOOL LIFE Director Neasa Ni Chianáin

Arlin and Neasa Ni Chianáin- provided by Arlin Golden

School Life is now playing in NYC, Santa Monica and D.C., and will expand to more US cities this week, and throughout September and October. Check the film’s website to find a screening near you.

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Opinions expressed in our articles are those of the authors and not of the Film Inquiry magazine.

Arlin is originally from Chicago, IL and currently resides in Oakland, CA. Receiving his BA in Film Studies in 2010, he is a failed rapper who works in film distribution. Among his non-cinematic interests are biking, playing basketball, record collecting, and breakfast cereal. He is still processing the new season of Twin Peaks and hopes one day that the world recognizes the many values of the Siesta system.

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