Summerhill at 70
Summerhill at 70
Directed: Peter Getzels, Harriet Gordon Getzels
Intimate and controversial Cutting Edge documentary gives an inside look at Summerhill School. Summerhill School is an independent British boarding school that was founded in 1921 by Alexander Sutherland Neill with the belief that the school should be made to fit the child, rather than the other way around. It is still run as a democratic community; the running of the school is conducted in the school meetings, which anyone, staff or pupil, may attend, and at which everyone has an equal vote. These meetings serve as both a legislative and judicial body. Members of the community are free to do as they please, so long as their actions do not cause any harm to others, according to Neill's principle "Freedom, not Licence." This extends to the freedom for pupils to choose which lessons, if any, they attend.
Movie ReviewsQuoted from the Summehill website:
'Summerhill at Seventy' documentary film
We allowed a couple of anthropologist filmmakers from the US to stay at the school with their family and make a fly-on-the-wall documentary. They visited beforehand and talked about their interest and support for Summerhill. We made friends with them and were completely open and honest with them – in exchange they made a film, which was, in effect, a complete lie.
I have to say that it was the worst term I had ever experienced at the school. A new staff member with his three children were unable to settle in due to their own preconceptions about Summerhill, as well as some personal problems. There were also other new children struggling with problems of their own.
Altogether, if you had to have a film-crew watching your every move, this was not the term you would want them!
Two weeks in to the term one of our pupils, Akira, a Japanese boy who had not yet returned to us, died suddenly of an asthma attack. The whole community was plunged in to the deepest despair. Akira had been with us for 6 years and was a part of our family. His death hung like a black cloud over the school for the whole term. The filmmakers did not film the tender memorial service the kids had for Akira, nor the grief and love that all the pupils and staff obviously had for him. It was a difficult time for everybody. Unfortunately this was obstructive for the new pupils who felt excluded by the closeness of the community.
Instead of concentrating on how the community was resolving its problems, and filming the positive steps that it took, the filmmakers concentrated on the problems themselves, which appeared in the film as though they were never solved. They focused on the small, angry group of new pupils who spent their entire time bickering and fighting. Even a Sunday afternoon light-hearted joke wedding was made to look as though it was a Summerhill tradition, shocking many people.
Whether this was the fault of the couple, or whether the Film Company (Cutting Edge) just wanted blood and thunder, we shall never know. But anybody connected with the media knows how easy it is to show an unbalanced picture – and how gullible the general public can be.
No mention was made about the beheaded rabbit being sick with Mixamatosis (a degenerative disease invented by humans which attacks the rabbit's eyes and genitals, causing enormous suffering and a slow lingering death) – instead it was made to look like a school ritual, which might occur frequently. The boys involved were obviously enjoying the hunt (as do millions of adults throughout the world) but the one who killed the rabbit was a farmer's son with some experience of country issues.
Whether this was an acceptable thing to do is not the issue, it was the withholding of information and sensationalism of the clip that was outrageous. We asked for this to be removed at the pre- screening, but they refused.
When the film was screened it was a terrible experience for us. We had letters and phone-calls threatening to kill us, burn our school, and more. Adults in the local town threatened our son, Henry and other children with a beating. Every newspaper in the country, except the Financial Times, sided with the film. They all assumed it was a terrible school and not that it could be a terrible film about a good school.
I don't think that the filmmakers ever knew all that, but I wish they had – it hurt us so much, and the children who were here at the time were scarred deeply by the whole event both from the effect it had on all of us, and also from feeling that they may have been responsible for contributing to the furore.
Fortunately many people who saw the film (and still see it as it is used in many schools in UK) could see it for what it was, a bad film. But I still get mails from people, shocked at what they see.
We don't keep a single copy of the film at Summerhill.
We were betrayed by people we thought of as our friends.