It may have taken Neasa Ní Chianáin a long time to finance her In loco parentis, screening in IDFA's feature-length competition, but it was very much worth the wait.
The film chronicles a year in an Irish boarding school and, like many of the institution's senior staff, exudes both charm and authority. The film was initially supported by Spanish broadcaster TVE before the Irish Film Board and broadcaster RTE came on board.
Ní Chianáin and co-director (and partner) David Rane both attended boarding schools as children and were determined to see what life was like in a twenty-first century establishment. They therefore trained their gaze on the progressive, non-denominational Headfort School, located in the historical town of Kells, not far from Dublin. The school building is straight out of the Irish Ascendancy and is set within acres of lush countryside and woodland. Also located within the grounds is the small cottage where John and Amanda Leyden reside, two teachers who have taught at the school since 1970. It is the work of this inspiring pair, and the lively scholastic activity of pupils within their classrooms, that forms the basis of the film.
"When we first met the Leydens, I don't think they were really interested in us at all as filmmakers, and it took some time for us to have that door opened," Ní Chianáin explains. "But once it was opened that was it; that was when the whole thing started coming to life."
John, like the school itself, is a bundle of contradictions. He is in his late sixties (maybe even his seventies) and at first seems absurdly standoffish, but he soon reveals a devilish sense of playfulness and can even play Van Halen licks on his electric guitar. When talking to a boy about taking a pledge of abstinence from alcohol before his Confirmation (a Catholic rite of passage) he advises against, advocating wise consumption instead. "When the kids first arrive they don't really get Mister Leyden, it takes a while to get his sense of humour," confirms Ní Chianáin. "But you see them changing and finally they click and get this grumpy old man – and then the banter starts."
The theme of non-conformism continues with the headmaster (himself a former pupil of the school), who tells his charges that if they encounter an immoral law, 'then they should break it.'
"I think nowadays there is a lot more awareness of the children's emotional landscape and a lot more attention is paid to the whole child maybe than when we were going to school," says Ní Chianáin. "The one thing that strikes you about Headfort is that they are very happy children."
Evidence of this is presented by the bucketful as the children belt out their own idiosyncratic version of Wild Thing, gambol in the school fields, get happily lost in the woodlands during field trips, perform in the school play or engage eagerly in school debates. Homesick, shy or perturbed children are monitored and embraced, and staff are on hand to perform parenting duties when the pain of home separation is acutely felt. "At Headfort, the children really have a different kind of childhood", Ní Chianáin underlines.