A Leap of Faith

A Leap of Faith" is a deeply affecting and scrupulously balanced documentary about the efforts to establish an integrated grade school -- one that accepts both Catholic and Protestant children -- in Belfast during the year before the recent cease-fire. Pic should post modestly impressive numbers in limited theatrical release, and will attract even greater interest in video and nontheatrical venues.

With:
Narrator: Liam Neeson.

A Leap of Faith” is a deeply affecting and scrupulously balanced documentary about the efforts to establish an integrated grade school — one that accepts both Catholic and Protestant children — in Belfast during the year before the recent cease-fire. Pic should post modestly impressive numbers in limited theatrical release, and will attract even greater interest in video and nontheatrical venues.

U.S.-born filmmakers Jennifer McShane and Tricia Regan have fashioned a powerful and provocative portrait of brave individuals who are determined to keep the next generation from being infected with centuries-old hatreds. “A Leap of Faith” is specific in its focus, but its message of reconciliation has an unmistakably universal resonance.

Liam Neeson provides the thoughtful narration, which is used sparingly but to great effect. The real star of the pic is Helen Farrimond, the de facto leader ofthe parents who decide not to send their youngsters to state-funded segregated schools. The volunteers restore a dilapidated Victorian building and set up the Cranmore Integrated Primary School, with Farrimond serving as principal.

TX: TX:A Parallel Lines production. Produced by Jennifer McShane, Tricia Regan, J. Brian Sheehan. TX:Directed, written by Jennifer McShane, Tricia Regan. During Cranmore’s first four months of operation, 20 sectarian murders are reported in Northern Ireland. “Why was it a white coffin instead of a regular coffin?” a child asks her mother while watching a TV newscast. “That was because it was a child’s coffin,” the mother replies.

At the school itself, politics are downplayed, tolerance and mutual respect are emphasized, and religious instruction is offered only in nondenominational generalities. “A Leap of Faith” covers the first year of classes at Cranmore, when only 37 children are enrolled. After one exceedingly brutal month of sectarian violence, applications to the school increase dramatically: Obviously, other parents come around to thinking that Cranmore is a much-needed first step toward breaking the chain of tribal hatreds.

But not everyone agrees. Indeed, two outspoken critics of integrated schooling, a Catholic and a Protestant, are given time on camera to hang themselves with their own words.

The Rev. Dennis Paul, a Catholic priest in Belfast, denounces projects like Cranmore as part of a plot to turn Irish Catholics into “little Christian Englishmen.” Catholic children, he insists, must be indoctrinated with Catholic teachings each and every day. On the other side of the issue, Ken Maginnis, a Protestant member of Parliament, sneeringly dismisses integrated schools as incapable of preparing children for “the real world”– a place, according to Maginnis, where “99% of the people (view) each other with a degree of distrust, misunderstanding and suspicion.”

“A Leap of Faith” is not given to starry-eyed optimism. The filmmakers acknowledge that the teachers at Cranmore and the growing number of other integrated schools in Northern Ireland face a daunting challenge. And although the pic concludes on a relatively upbeat note, with the signing of the cease-fire between Catholic and Protestant paramilitary organizations, even the indefatigably upbeat Farrimond admits the violence could resume at any time.

Farrimond sounds like someone who knows she is walking on eggshells. But “A Leap of Faith” celebrates her efforts, and those of the other teachers and parents of the children at Cranmore, to move forward nonetheless.

Video-to-film transfer is exceptionally good. Other tech values are first-rate.

A Leap of Faith

Docu -- Color

Production: A Parallel Lines production. Produced by Jennifer McShane, Tricia Regan, J. Brian Sheehan. Directed, written by Jennifer McShane, Tricia Regan.

Crew: Camera (color, tape-to-film), Eugene McVeigh; editor, Toby Shimin; sound, Ronan Hill. Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (competing), Jan. 22, 1996. Running time: 86 min.

With: Narrator: Liam Neeson.Within the historical context provided by the filmmakers, the decision to open such a school seems stunningly courageous. Pic makes chillingly clear in a series of economical but telling scenes just how deep-rooted are the religious animosities in Northern Ireland. Perhaps the most disturbing image is that of a young Protestant boy marching in a parade with the orange sash of loyalists proudly draped across his chest. Off to the side, another youngster, conspicuously sashless, aims a toy rifle at the Protestant boy.

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