'Summerhill at Seventy' Channel-4 documentary
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 for Channel-4) 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.
back to history
We don't keep a single copy of the film at Summerhill.
We were betrayed by people we thought of as our friends.