Traditionally, documentaries about something in Northern Ireland, or Belfast, are the bleakest of affairs. And rightly so. However, Declan McGrath and Neasa Ní Chianáin’s documentary Young Plato is the rarity of things, an observational documentary that kindles hope in the viewer.
Young Plato is the story of Kevin McArevey, the headmaster of Holy Cross Boy’s Primary School, located in the post-conflict Ardoyne area of north Belfast. Ardoyne, a working-class interface area between the two communities of Northern Ireland, has seen some of the worst incidents of the Troubles and beyond. McArevey hopes that, through teaching his students classic philosophy, he can help break the cycle of division and empower the children through critical thinking and understanding.
Sometimes it works; other times, it doesn’t. But, throughout, McArevey shows how his kids can address the collective trauma of the Troubles, that gaping wound to the psyche that so many of us living in Northern Ireland have. In that mix, McArevey and the Holy Cross teachers have to deal with the intersectionality of being a school in a deprived working-class area and the issues caused by that. For every moment of questioning, reflection and processing, there are moments of fights, breakdowns, remorse, the suicide rate of Ardoyne’s teenagers, and a thousand other charged moments that go into schooling.
As a member of the Limbo Generation, those born toward the end of the Troubles and start of the Peace Process, there are parts of Young Plato that both resonated with me and made it difficult to watch. There are moments in this film that are universal for people who’ve grown up in Northern Ireland, no matter your community background, school, or area. This may have influenced my opinion on Young Plato, but I found it an essential and engaging documentary despite how close to home it cut.
What is at times a light-hearted film, it doesn’t gloss over the past, nor does McArevey prevent the children from learning. If anything, he understands the only way to move on and break free of it is to confront it head-on with the skills he’s imparting to them. Many of the boys are the children of the Holy Cross Girl’s School students who were attacked in 2001/2002. Images of terrified schoolgirls, mothers to several of the students, are addressed by the boys in the classes.
While none of them is older than 12, through them, we witness a maturity and a depth of understanding that allows them to process these and other events. Events such as the bomb left on school grounds and the seasonal interface rioting that McGrath and Ní Chianáin captured during filming. By getting the boys to use Socratic circles and concept maps, McArevey can break down questions of morality, inherited communal violence, and individual responsibility.
McGrath and Ní Chianáin have chosen not to use interviews or voiceovers to explain McArevey’s program or the area’s history. Instead, they rely on observing the classes’ content and the discussion among the students to capture the impact of McArevey’s program. This realistic approach gives us the feeling that we are part of the class, learning as the boys learn and capturing life in the school.
The documentary is not without its problems. We only really get to learn about one of the students. Not that their story isn’t worth knowing about, but for a 109-minute film, we should have found out more about a few of the other students. And that’s another issue. It’s ten minutes too long, feeling at times meandering. But, these are minor gripes that don’t take away from the film’s overall enjoyment.
Young Plato is a documentary that provides hope to the viewer. Hope that the system of animosity, so engrained here, can and will be broken and not pollute future generations living in Northern Ireland.
Young Plato is now in cinemas.