David Rane, the producer and co-director (with Neasa Ní Chianáin) of acclaimed documentary School Life, write for Culture about the film's journey to Sundance and back, and about making an optimistic film in difficult times. 

Watch School Life here, via RTÉ Player.

Who would have thought that a film about two close-to-retirement teachers, and a private boarding school full of primary-age kids hidden away in Headfort, an 18th century Hogwarts-like building in Kells, would have travelled so far and wide and touched so many people? And yet that’s what School Life (or In Loco Parentis, as it was originally titled) has managed to do. Now, it’s going to be broadcast to, what we hope will be, its largest single audience yet, on RTE One tonight at 10.15pm, in a special two-part series.

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Neasa and I had both been to boarding school, so it wasn’t an alien phenomenon to us. But we knew this was not the norm in many cultures. So when we told people about the film we were working on, we tended to get extreme reactions – either outright horror at the very idea of parents sending their young children away to boarding school, or revelations by some that it had been a childhood fantasy of theirs, probably inspired by Malory Towers or St Trinian’s, to actually go to boarding school.

We all need something that makes us feel good about ourselves, makes us feel optimistic, and believe that we, and our children, can make a change in the world.

Could a boarding school really become a surrogate family, looking after the whole child ‘in loco parentis’? Many schools pitch themselves as this, but we found that Headfort really delivered. This idea of the surrogate family became the primary focus of our film and I think we managed to capture it and put it on screen.

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Ultimately we feel that School Life is about a particular kind of surrogate family and childhood, a childhood that gives a child the freedom to discover who they are, and, of course, everyone can relate to the impact of an inspiring and influential teacher.

We really only discovered John and Amanda Leyden, the ‘stars’ of our film, after we had already decided to make the film about the school. Whilst researching, we met with many alumni; 50 year olds, 40 year olds, 30 year olds who, when asked about their experience in the school cited John and Amanda Leyden as truly inspirational influences. The couple had taught there for nearly fifty years, making an indelible impression on literally thousands of kids. It took us time to get to know John and Amanda, and for them to get to know us, but once they decided to participate in the film, they were incredibly generous and gave us complete access to their lives.

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Teachers from all over the world have now seen this film, and many have come up to us privately or spoken out in Q&As. Mostly they talk about how inspired they’ve been by John & Amanda’s approach to teaching. Some have lamented the lack of time and freedom they have within their own teaching environment to be able to reach the children in a similar fashion. Some have said that they try to deliver as much as they are allowed within the confines of whatever state system they are operating in… but ultimately I think teachers see things in the film that have sadly disappeared from today’s teaching pedagogies.

Everyone can relate to the impact of an inspiring and influential teacher.

When Neasa and I got the phone call from Harry Vaughn, of the Sundance Film Festival, we were over the moon: the most important festival in the world for independent films, inviting School Life to premiere there. Harry said, "The world needs a positive, uplifting film like this in the challenging times we are living in."

Of course, as an American, he probably meant the rise of the right-wing in the US and the xenophobia and racism rearing its ugly head across the world. Soon however things were destined to get a lot worse – Donald Trump was elected president. For us it was dark irony indeed that School Life ended up premiering at Sundance on the very day of Trump’s inauguration.

Schoolteacher Amanda Leyden, one of the 'stars' of School Life 

But the Sundance audience loved the film – they laughed from the opening shot of John and Amanda Leyden’s wonderful dog, Fred, sitting up on the breakfast table, and they cried at the final shot, as the children, who they’d come to know and love during the film, say their end-of-year "Goodbyes".

And then we understood what Harry meant: in these difficult times, when sometimes we feel overwhelmed and helpless to change anything, we all need something that makes us feel good about ourselves, makes us feel optimistic, and believe that we, and our children, can make a change in the world. I believe that’s what Harry, and the hundreds of thousands of people since Sundance, got from watching School Life. And we hope that’s what you might get from watching the film.

School Life screens in two parts on RTE One, on Thursday, February 15th and 22nd, at 10.15 pm.