A still from school life.

School Life explores a different route on educating children with a school based in Ireland. Watch the premiere on SundanceTV.

With a directorial debut in 2001 with No Man’s Land and moving on to create waves with the 2014 film The Stranger, Neasa Ní Chianáin returns with a heart-warming offering about an unconventional take on boarding school education in the form of the documentary film School Life.

Watch School Life on Thursday 18 January at 00:00 on SundanceTV (DStv Channel 108) and streaming live on DStv Now.  Don't forget to check out SundanceTV as a Featured Channel on The Guide by DStv

Based on a year in the life of two teachers at Headfort School – a boarding school for primary-age children in Ireland – they see their retirement fast approaching. With John Leyden and his strong connection to music to the love of books fueling the teaching methods for Amanda Leyden, the two have left a lasting impression on thousands of kids past and present for over 40 years.  Follow them as they grapple with the thought of life after retirement in School Life with a special celebration of their work.

Watch the trailer for School Life below:


We had a chance to chat to the respected director Neasa Ní Chianáin on her latest feature film. From where she drew inspiration to similar childhood experiences, we get a closer look into the making of School Life

The inspiration

Ní Chianáin shares that the theme of alternative education sat close to her and co-director and husband, David Rane’s hearts. As the pair searched far and wide for options for their children they stumbled upon the school that sparked it all.  With a large focus on reading and literature among other great qualities, it seemed like the perfect fit for their six-year-old who was too young to be hating school as much as he did at the time Ní Chianáin said.

“After a year of [our children] attending the school, we thought there’s something really, really special here,” she added about where the inspiration culminated. She noted their curiosity around a school being positioned as a “surrogate family” in comparison to her and Rane’s time at boarding school in their childhood – positive for Ní Chianáin, but a traumatic experience for Rane.

Sundance success

The inspiration garnered resulted in School Life which was accepted into the 2017 Sundance Film Festival. “It was disbelief,” shares Ní Chianáin on the achievement “We always aspire to that but you never imagine that it will really happen”. From the exciting trip to Sundance to the embrace from fellow film creatives, School Life has received nothing other than great reviews. The positive and hopeful aspects of the film touched many. 

Two years and one small production later saw all of the hard work from Ní Chianáin and Rane pay off. “A festival-worthy film is very close to the director’s heart,” Ní Chianáin says about their entry into Sundance Film Festival paired with the many obstacles that get thrown in the way. Ultimately hanging on and the belief that everything will come together coupled with the passion keeps not only Ní Chianáin but others focused and determined to tell a story. 


A Headfort future?

If the world followed the Headfort approach as a norm, Ní Chianáin believes we would have more balanced people. She reflects on having seen introverted kids entering the system and exiting with a quiet air of confidence, respect and more engaged in the world. “That could only be a good thing if more people left school on that level” she adds. 

“If children are given freedom, they really sort of step up to the mark”, Ní Chianáin says when asked about what conventional parents and teachers could take away from School Life. When it comes to the utmost important lesson she could teach a child: figure out who it is you are. “That will help to direct you in whatever way would suit you, your personality and your interests” she advises. 

Global gratitude

With School Life airing for a South African audience on SundanceTV, Ní Chianáin took a chance to share her gratitude to the many people and cultures around the world who have shared in viewing the film. “They felt empowered and inspired by the film,” she says about the parents in the audiences from the many festivals showcased at “this is a film that celebrates childhood and freedom and giving kids the space to grow”.  

No stranger to South Africa, Ní Chianáin shared that she has visited the country a number of times due to her husband growing up here. When asked what she loved most about visiting, she pointed out the beautiful wilderness and animals. “We love it and our kids love it, we’ve had some great times there,” she said happily.

 Watch School Life on Thursday 18 January at 00:00 on SundanceTV (DStv Channel 108) and streaming live on DStv Now

See the SundanceTV Featured Channel on The Guide by DStv here