On this day in 2016, School Life, a heartwarming documentary about the last remaining boarding school for primary age children in Ireland, was released in theaters. This film was directed by Neasa Ní Chianáin, whose career has included many gems, including this one.
Neasa Ní Chianáin is an Irish documentary filmmaker whose work has ranged from controversial to beloved. After studying at the National College of Art and Design in Dublin, Neasa worked as an art director for several feature films and television shows in Ireland, including All Soul’s Day, Angela’s Ashes, and A Love Divided. She also worked on BBC’s Rebel Heart.
Neasa’s first feature documentary was No Man’s Land (2001), a documentary which details the stories and experiences of asylum seekers in Ireland under its controversial Direct Provision system. The film exposes Ireland’s controversial Direct Provision system, which sequesters these asylum seekers to remote areas of Ireland and keeps them under strict supervision with limited accommodations. The system was introduced in 2000, and has been facing backlash for years, but Neasa was one of the first to point out the poor living conditions that asylum seekers were facing. Neasa further demonstrated her power as a documentarian with the kindness and respect with which she told the asylum seekers’ stories.
Neasa’s next doc, Fairytale of Kathmandu solidified Neasa’s bravery as a filmmaker who is not afraid to expose what she knows is not right. The film chronicled the visits of famous poet Cathal Ó Searcaigh to Nepal, where he had inappropriate relationships with young boys (around 16 years old), who he claimed to mentor. Created in 2007, this film was an early exploration of the complexities and pitfalls of relationships which are marked by wealth and power imbalances. The age of consent in Nepal is sixteen, so Cathal’s actions were not illegal, but Neasa recognized that it was more complicated than that and sought to expose the inappropriate and damaging behavior. In making Fairytale of Kathmandu, Neasa has been called a whistleblower for his behavior; though he had been criticized before, the documentary laid out the story clearly for the first time.
Neasa’s 2016 film School Life struck a distinctly different tone from No Man’s Land, though it was created with the same appreciation for the humanity of its subjects. School Life documents a year in the life of two cherished teachers, John and Amanda Leyden, at Headfort School, the only primary-age boarding school in Ireland. John teaches math and Latin and leads the school’s rock band, while his wife Amanda teaches English. The film is both a charming portrait of childhood and a testament to the impact that a great teacher can have. Another unique element of School Life is its “fly on the wall” style. In the words of FF2 contributor Roza Mulkumyan, “Lighthearted and at times quite funny, Neasa Ní Chianáin and David Rane’s documentary envelops its audience in this microcosm of school life. The absence of talking-head interviews paired with a simple, unobtrusive narrative allows for viewers to inhabit the world of these schoolchildren.”
Though many of her films have made a big impact, Neasa’s most recent film has received the most critical acclaim and permanently put her on the map as one of the most important modern documentary filmmakers. Although this is another documentary about a school, this one is more somber. Young Plato (2022) tells the story of Kevin McArevey, a schoolmaster at an all-boys school in Belfast, Ireland, who is attempting to turn around the lives of his students, who come from a community ridden with poverty and addiction. Kevin arms the boys with the wisdom of ancient Greek philosophers, teaching them to fight against the norms of violence and prejudice in their community, and learn to look beyond the limits of the place they grew up.
Neasa is a filmmaker who is open to all parts of life; she does not shy away from the ugly parts of humanity, yet also has not lost her love for the good parts of it. Whether it will cause joy or outrage, Neasa knows when a story must be told.
© Julia Lasker (9/8/2023) FF2 Media
LEARN MORE/DO MORE
Read Roza Melkumyan’s review of School Life here.
Watch School Life here.
Watch Young Plato here.
CREDITS & PERMISSIONS
Featured photo: A scene from SCHOOL LIFE, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.
Bottom photo: Neasa Ní Chianáin, director of SCHOOL LIFE, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.