The makers of the Young Plato documentary about how philosophy is changing the lives of young people at a primary school in Ardoyne

YOUNG Plato has just won the Irish Council for Civil Liberties Human Rights Award at the Dublin International Film Festival. It’s a well-deserved reward: this uplifting and inspiring documentary from directors Neasa Ní Chianáin and Declan McGrath examines the positive impact education can have on young people, their families and the wider community.

The film follows headmaster Kevin McArevey and his staff at Holy Cross Boys Primary School in Ardoyne over an entire school year (which has been disrupted by Covid) to capture how the optimistic and philosophical approach to teaching and pastoral care of McArevey, born in Lenadoon, equips the students. with essential life skills not found in traditional school textbooks.

Under the supervision of Mr. McArevey, the boys of Holy Cross draw inspiration from Plato, Socrates, Aristotle and Seneca. They engage in philosophical debates in the classroom, where each student has a platform to express their thoughts and feelings on various topics while considering those of their classmates.

As part of a mission to make sure these boys learn to think before they act/react, there is a strict ‘no violence’ rule in the playground. When skirmishes occur, those involved must solve their problems with the help of a special “philosophical advice” that allows them to approach the situation critically, analyzing the emotions and the impact of their actions.

McArevey also encourages his students to take what they’ve learned home, personally visiting parents to help them understand how philosophical teachings and the power of simply communicating with each other can positively impact unity. family.

“A friend of mine told me about this headmaster who taught philosophy at his school,” says Belfast-born McGrath, who came up with the original idea for the new documentary and handled the sound during the actual filming. .

“He said ‘if you go up there it’s great, you can walk into the classroom and hear all those little guys from Ardoyne talking about Plato, Aristotle and Socrates’.

“It was pretty amazing to see on its own, but I realized it went much deeper than that, because not only could they talk about these philosophers – which was kind of cute or quirky, in a way – they were just incredibly articulate.

“They had great confidence and a great ability to express themselves, which is great for any kid that age, but especially for those who come from a deprived area. It will be great for them when they will go out into the larger world – they’re not going to be intimidated by people who come for money or privileges.

“If you look at Ardoyne and what he’s been through in terms of conflict and mental illness since the confit, I just thought that was a really important story: showing people a way out of trouble and violence and what you can do after the violence to make a difference is what Kevin does.

Having previously worked with Ní Chianáin and his producing partner David Rane at Co Meath-based Soilsiú Films as an editor, McGrath knew they had a “huge reputation for making observational films”, notably their documentary acclaimed 2016 education-themed School Life.

“You can’t be a distraction in their day,” says Ní Chianáin on the art of capturing what’s going on in a school environment without causing disruption.

“You have to wear them down, basically, being there all the time so they get so used to you that they continue their daily routine. I knew we had to be there even if we weren’t filming, so we asked Kevin if we could have a small room in the school where we could retreat to keep an eye on what was going on.

“There were 430 boys, so it took a bit of time to find the right classroom with the right teacher who was going to give us access – that’s a big ‘request’ from a teacher, allowing us in in what is a very sacred space.

“It can be hard for people to grasp the idea of ​​what observational filmmaking is, so we spent a lot of time explaining to staff what we were trying to do and reassuring them.”

The principal continues: “Kevin had the idea straight away, it was more about trying to get the rest of the staff on board. We were lucky enough to have a role model in School Life that we could show them for let them have an idea, and we pointed out how we only wanted to use positive story arcs in the film.”

At the center of the documentary is Kevin McArevey himself, a definite “character” whose commitment to securing a better and brighter future for his Holy Cross Boys students is perhaps matched only by his passion for everything. regarding Elvis Presley.

Having previously struggled with alcohol and a tendency to rely on physical intervention to solve problems, McArevey took charge of his life once he quit drinking and embraced the philosophical teachings of the Stoics – and now he is on a mission to broaden young minds with the benefit of its lived experience.

“He has a lot of energy and he’s always on the move, so the hardest part was tracking him and knowing where he was,” reveals Ní Chianáin.

“No matter how many times we asked him to ‘please let us know if you’re about to do something’, he was always so ‘in the moment’ that it was really up to us to be able to follow it. so we weren’t having a cup of coffee when something good was happening.

“What’s so great about Kevin is that he’s everywhere: he walks through these hallways, he walks in and out of classrooms, he keeps an eye on people all the time – and what I have what was really unique about him and the staff at Holy Cross was that they took the time to listen to the children.

“I think that’s something very unique about this school. If the kids misbehaved or did something wrong, it wasn’t just ‘inflicting punishment’ – they really listened to them and gave children the space to take stock of what really happened.

“It was really, really powerful and the kids really respond to it and respect it. The kids really enjoy this process with the philosophy counseling, it’s a lot more empowering and cathartic for them than detention.

“The boys would come in sobbing, angry and upset, but as they answered these three questions – ‘What happened?’, ‘What should have happened?’ and ‘Where are we going from here? – they left as friends. It was just amazing to see that.”

Indeed, as its co-director McGrath points out, it is often the students of the Holy Cross Boys themselves who lead their philosophical discussions, where everyone’s opinion is taken into account and where there is no ” right” or “wrong” answers.

He explains, “What’s great about this school with philosophy is that it’s not the teacher who tells them what to think; they debate it among themselves, each of them offers a point of view and at the end, Kevin asks them if any of them have really changed their mind.

“That’s the whole idea – that it’s good and healthy to change your mind.”

If, as Plato said, “the direction in which a man’s education begins will determine his future in life”, then the compelling documentary Young Plato suggests that students at Holy Cross Boys Primary School now have a future. much brighter thanks to the inspiring work of Kevin McArevey and his team.

:: Young Plato opens in theaters March 11. There will be a special Q&A screening with the directors at QFT Belfast on March 11 at 6pm, book online via queensfilmtheatre.com/Whats-On/Young-Plato.

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