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Documentary Looks at Life in an Irish Boarding School

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When I occasionally get to see a documentary about education in another country, I have a natural tendency to assume that the work is somewhat representative of the traditions and quirks of schooling in that country. It's not necessarily true, of course.

And then I wonder which documentary about U.S. education would be most representative of K-12 schooling here to a foreign audience. One of the many about schools in tough urban neighborhoods? One about competition to get into oversubscribed charter schools? There are so many, about so many diverse aspects of education here, that it would be hard to pick one that was truly representative.

So what is one to make of a documentary about a private boarding school in Ireland that is full of quirky characters? 

"School Life" is a 100-minute film by Neasa Ní Chianáin, an Irish documentarian whose first acclaimed work was about an asylum. ("School Life" was evidently titled "In Loco Parentis" before being changed.)

The new film is about the Headfort School, said to be the last primary boarding school in Ireland. It looks like it has been around for centuries because it occupies a ramshackle Georgian mansion with lush woods and grounds in Kells, about an hour outside of Dublin. The school was founded in 1949.

The documentary, which was shown at the AFI DOCS festival of the American Film Institute in Washington earlier this month, plops viewers immediately into the cottage of John and Amanda Leyden, a married couple and longtime teachers at the school, where they are ruminating about how long they can go on. There are books stuffed into every nook and cranny of their living room.

John Leyden teaches English, math (or maths, as it is known in the British Isles), Latin, and Scripture, along with serving as impresario of a couple of student rock bands.

Amanda Leyden is mostly shown teaching literature as well as being an informal counselor and dorm mother to students who would be of elementary and middle school age here.

The film's own publicity materials refer to Headfort as "not unlike Hogwarts," the fictional English boarding school of Harry Potter and friends. That's a bit much, but it does feel at times that one is watching a fictional film because of how eccentric and poetic some of the scenes are. (And I was reminded not so much of Harry Potter but of films such as "The History Boys," "Sing Street," and even 1991's "The Commitments.")

Early on in the film, the students troop the colors either of their county in Ireland or their other country of citizenship, which include Spain, France, Russia, and a few from the United States. A few students' stories emerge from the bunch, such as Eliza, a reserved but academically gifted girl who the Leydens worry is living life on the sidelines. 

Meanwhile, Ted struggles with his dyslexia in the classroom, but is boosted by his star turn in an abridged version of a Shakespeare play.

The headmaster, Dermot Dix, is a liberal-minded educator who himself was taught by the Leydens and is shown leading a discussion among the students about same-sex marriage (evidently just after the Irish Parliament had put the question to a public referendum, which was approved in 2015).

The school must be doing something right. As the school year winds down, some of the boys learn they have been accepted to Eton and Harrow, two of Britain's best secondary boarding schools. Meanwhile, the rock bands have improved noticeably. And Eliza is much more outgoing and confident.

The Leydens openly worry about their aging bodies. At one point, one of them explains to a student that their cottage on school grounds won't survive as a private home once they leave it because it is too old and decrepit. One wonders if they could survive without their attachment to the home and to Headfort.

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