Writers: Etienne Essery, Declan McGrath and Neasa Ní Chianáin
Directors: Declan McGrath and Neasa Ní Chianáin
Could teaching philosophy to primary school boys resolve the situation in Northern Ireland? Headmaster Kevin McArevey seems to think so in this interesting documentary filmed before and after lockdown. His school, The Holy Cross Primary School for Boys, encourages pupils to attend to Seneca before they think about fighting.
Belfast’s Ardoyne may look peaceful now, but ‘peace walls’ still divide the Catholics from the Protestants and it was only in 2001 when Loyalist protesters threw missiles at Catholic pupils as they made their way to the Holy Cross Primary School for Girls, stranded in a Protestant area. The teachers at McArevey’s school show news footage of these frightening protests to the boys to underline the fragility of the current peace. Even as Declan McGrath and Neasa Ní Chianáin shoot their film, the school is evacuated as a bomb is found outside the school gates. The boys are visibly shaken the next day in assembly.
To prevent future sectarian violence, the boys are taught philosophy in The Philosophy Room, its walls inscribed with quotes from the world’s great thinkers. As punishment boys are required to write a series of actions and consequences on the philosophy board, encouraging them to think with their heads rather than their fists. Normal fights in the playground are resolved through philosophy rather than Catholicism. ‘Turn the other cheek’ becomes ‘Put yourself in the other person’s place.’ Instead of obeying one’s parents, McArevey encourages the boys to challenge their parents in order to break the cycle where distrust of the other side is passed down from generation to generation like an inheritance
Without a narrator or even on-screen text this observational documentary is very intimate, its lens so close to the boys’ faces that tears of shame and frustration are clearly visible, and at times the camera seems too intrusive. The cameras must have been there some time because the boys seem used to being watched, and they hardly look at them at all. Instead they fiddle and fidget in their seats like any child.
However, with no interviews or talking heads, the documentary mainly shows McArevey teaching the children. As needed, he talks at their level, but the film lacks adult conversation and explanation and McArevey’s voice becomes a little patronising after 90 minutes. He’s no easy hero either. When he visits students with their mother at home he tells them to put away their electronic devices and yet his mobile phone rings a few seconds into their chat. Twice more we see his phone go off when he’s meant to be teaching. He laughs it off but the silent camera seems to be less forgiving.
Of course, McArevey is doing good work, and let’s hope that when the boys move to secondary school they take the philosophy with them. One boy does move up, and he’s told ‘ Once a Holy Cross boy, always a Holy Cross boy.’ It would be intriguing if the documentary makers were to follow the boys to see if their experimental education will make any difference.
YOUNG PLATO is released in UK cinemas from 11th March.