NEASA Ní Chianáin’s new documentary In Loco Parentis brings us inside the walls of an Irish boarding school — and into the world of an Enid Blyton or Harry Potter novel.
There’s a sense of timelessness to Headfort in Co Meath, with its rambling grounds, hidden passageways and 18th century buildings, that is reminiscent of Malory Towers or Hogwarts. It is here that children come to live and learn during some of the most formative years of their lives.
Fresh from strong reviews at Sundance and an international film distribution deal, the documentary’s title is Latin — one of the languages still taught at the school — and translates as “in the place of the parent”.
It documents a year in the life of the teachers and pupils of Headfort, an exclusive prep school for seven to 12-year-olds in Kells, Co Meath. It’s the only school of its kind remaining in Ireland.
The film, which screens as the centrepiece gala at the Audi Dublin International Film Festival on Wednesday, will be released in cinemas in early March.
While the children are endearing and funny, it’s the unconventional approach to their education by long-married couple John and Amanda Leyden that makes the film special. While their record as educators stands for itself, they are as passionate about the kids setting up rock bands as they are about English literature.
Director Neasa Ní Chianáin and producer David Rane came across the school while they were researching education options for their children.
“There were a few things that converged at the same time,” she says. “We were living in northwest Donegal and our children were in a little all Irish rural school. We were looking for something a little more diverse for them education wise.
“So we started looking at all schools like the Steiner school, Educate Together and others in the area. We came across this school ona website. We really liked the headmaster’s letter in which the whole focus was on the happiness of the child. We said: ‘Okay, this is interesting’.”
Both filmmakers had their own experience of boarding school in their childhood. “Both David and I had been to boarding school. I went as a day pupil to a primary school that was also a boarding school. It was kind of similar to Headfort.
“Then I went to boarding school. I packed myself off thinking of [Enid Blyton’s] Malory Towers. Obviously it wasn’t that but it was still a good experience.
“Whereas David, his parents were living in Nigeria at the time and they sent him off to boarding school in England at the age of seven.
“We both kind of had different ideas, different experiences and we both then had an interest in knowing the 21st century boarding school and what it looked like.
“When we did a bit more research we realised that Headfort was the last, the only boarding school left for children in this country from ages 7 to 12.”
It was during a meeting with headmaster Dermot Dix about their children (who went on to attend as day pupils) that the idea of a documentary was first mooted.
“We got on really well. He knew some of our other work. He asked us would we be interested in doing a film about the school,” said Ní Chianáin, whose previous documentaries include No Man’s Land and Fairytale of Kathmandu.
“Our kids loved it; they just blossomed in that year. It was a wonderful educational experience for them. We were quite confident in the experience that they were having and said: ‘Let’s just go for this’, and we started writing proposals and sending them off.
“It was difficult at the time as it was 2012 just after the crash. Nobodywas interested in a film about a private school. So we did struggle for a year.”
Early on, the filmmakers realised that John and Amanda, with their quirks and vibrant personalities, should be the main focus.
“They had zero interest in us,” she laughed. “They only do children, they don’t do adults really. It was probably over time they got to know us, like we weren’t just going to go in there and quickly do a three-week shoot and buzz off after that.
“Once they got to know us. I remember they came to us one day and said ‘We’re in, make a film’. And they were fantastic, amazing. The door was open to us from that point on. There never was a bad time for filming. It was always ‘Yes, sure, come along’.”
The film also explores the relationships, successes and challenges of children at very important stages in their lives. Did the filmmakers find they had to gain the trust of them and their families before setting up the cameras?
“We were very lucky. There is such a love for the school.”
Ní Chianáin met many people who had heard of the school, had kids there, or had friends whose children went there.
“Some of the kids had parents who went to the school. So I think there was a great trust in the institution. At the time we were shooting there were 85 kids and only one child we weren’t allowed film.”
In Loco Parentis recently secured a major international distribution deal which should see it reach a potentially worldwide audience.
There’s no doubt that the adult and child personalities within the halls of the school, and their endearing character traits and ambitions, make for entertaining viewing. What is less expected is the film’s broad appeal.
“Well I think it’s the childhood we all wish we would have in many ways, in terms of their freedom that you see the children have,” muses Ní Chianáin. “I think it’s a charmed existence to have access to a music room like that. Access to woods, to be allowed build forts and of course John and Amanda. They are quite exceptional characters.
“I’ve never captured it on camera but I’ve seen Dermot chatting to parents in corridors and a child coming by and doing a ‘high-five’ with him. Dermot does this effortlessly. It’s all the about child and goes back to his conversation with the parent. And in terms of Dermot’s method of teaching we found his classes really interesting. He doesn’t talk at the kids. He tries to do it through discussion and debate and you see a glimpse of that in the film [when the children discuss marriage equality].”
We may get to share more of the lives of the teachers and children of Headfort. Ní Chianáin and her team are working on a documentary series for television.