Young Plato: Documentary Review

Still from Young Plato

By Cameron Macpherson

4.5 stars

An enlightening and inspiring documentary that follows one visionary teacher’s philosophical mission to help kids blossom in a troubled community.

Throughout history there are scattered examples of triumph in the face of adversity. Sometimes a flower blooms in the desert, sometimes the heavy underdog beats the favourite, and sometimes a marginalised community in Belfast begins to overcome its past through philosophy.

Young Plato is a new documentary that follows Kevin McArevey, the talismanic and visionary head teacher of Holy Cross Primary in Ardoyne, Belfast; as he implements philosophy into the curriculum. Which has a profound impact on shifting the critical thinking of the young boys towards a place of awareness, questioning, and understanding.

Directors Neasa Ni Chianain and Declan McGrath’s observational-style documentary invites the viewer into the corridors of Holy Cross, allowing them to witness the subtle changes McArevey’s teachings have on making the pupils more self-aware and better at regulating their emotions. Through little vignettes of pupils’ encounters with McArevey and other staff, the viewer witnesses the nourishing lessons McArevey instils in his pupils.

‘What does it mean to be a friend?’ ‘Is it okay to ever hit someone, even if they have hit you?’ ‘What does anxiety feel like?’. The viewer is then treated to the beautifully earnest and genuine responses the boys give. ‘A friend is someone who, like, always has your back.’ ‘Well maybe hitting someone might feel good at the time, but you don’t know what they might be going through or in their home. They might be having a tough time.’ ‘Anxiety is like, you know, you get all flustered and all and are dead uncomfortable all the time.’ – are a few answers that stand out.

“What was fascinating about Ardoyne, is that this was a state school with a visionary headmaster.That wasn’t waiting around for the curriculum to change. He just went full tilt ahead and introduced philosophy as a core subject in the school.” Director Nease Ni Chianain said.

Throughout the film, it’s astounding how these boys can hold such rational and reasoned thinking, even with McArevey’s teachings, considering their communities’ past. The community of Ardoyne was at times inhospitable during the troubles. Widespread rioting and constant violence between the protestant and catholic communities volatitley combined to create a toxic environment for children to grow up in. Many of the children attending Holy Cross have inherited the trauma from their parents and still live under the heavy shadow of the Troubles.

Perhaps some of the most endearing scenes come from the kids discussing their take on the whole matter. ‘It’s just nonsense, we all bleed the same blood at the end of the day’. It’s powerful to watch how purely and honestly these kids discuss the harrowing history of the Troubles. A task which so many adults struggle with. ‘It’s just pure ignorance.’ another pupil adds.

On the surface, Holy Cross is the same as any other school. The kids there face the same issues as in any school. Loneliness, teasing, fighting. However all of these  issues are coated with the thick paint of engrained trauma that is difficult to remove. A predominantly Catholic community, Ardoyne exhibited some of the worst rioting and violence during the Troubles.

Flare-ups even still erupt from time to time. In one scene, the kids sit in a darkened classroom, with the glow of the projector lighting up their eager and innocent faces. However the footage being shown on the projector is far from innocent. It’s news footage from violent protests in the area in the early 2000’s. Lines of armour clad riot police line the streets, creating an opening to allow kids a glimmer of opportunity to scramble to school. As missiles fly overheard and cries of ‘Fenian bastards’ follow them, we see a little girl balling and crying in terror as her Mum cradles her and guides her to school.

A difficult scene to swallow. However, as the film cuts back to the young boys watching on in the classroom; one can’t help but wonder how they remain so stoic. The answer is what lies at the heart of this film. Resilience.

“I was really blown away by the joy I could feel in those hallways. Because outside of those walls, I knew there was some really tough things going on and they had managed to create some form of oasis. I think they did that with humour and laughter.” Director Nease Ni Chianain said.

‘We need stories of hope and resilience.’ She added.

It is the offering of these ideals that I believe elevates this documentary to a lofty status. For it would be so easy, for this community, for these teachers, for these children to give up. Merely accept that their lives are destined to be forever troubled and difficult. However, through McAvrevey’s boldness to stray from the curriculum and blaze a new trail; the tide is turning and the next generation of Ardoyne are on a brighter trajectory than many before them. This has been achieved not through rejection and avoidance; but through acceptance and understanding. Which is a lesson everyone can benefit from. You don’t even have to go to school for this one.

Young Plato is in UK cinemas on March 11th.