Films about schools show us how a value system is passed from one generation to another. These films can directly impact how we view and question schools and their teachers. Most of those remembered are filmed in the cinema verite style, from Wiseman’s classical High School (1968) to Longinotto’s student film Pride of Place (1976). The observational documentary gives the audience a direct insight and closeness to the characters, witnessing the real-life trouble and challenges of the students without seemingly being manipulated by commentaries and interviews.
Neasa Ní Chianáin applies this observational style in her latest films, School Life (2016) which she co-directed with David Rane and now Young Plato. In both films, she focuses on uniquely gifted educators who make a fundamental change in the students’ lives for the better.
In Young Plato, the main character is Kevin McArevey, school principal at Holy Cross Boys’ Primary in Ardoynbe, North Belfast. What makes Young Plato truly interesting is that the school is located in a rather hostile environment. Ardoynbe is not only a working-class neighbourhood burdened with drug addiction and violence. The place is still deeply affected by the violent period termed «The Troubles», when IRA snipers, car bombs, and grenade attacks are part of daily life. The viewer quickly realises that the hostility between the Catholics and Protestants are being kept alive by the older generation.
McArevey is a colourful character with an open mind and heart. Being a full-blooded Elvis fan, he derives his strength and encouragement from two pillars in his life, rock-and-roll and Greek philosophy, in his plight to break the cycle of violence. McArevey is devoted to turning the tide of vengeance by creating a unique philosophy club for the students, who are encouraged to question rather than react. In many ways, his methods remind us of modern anger management, whose actual principles, we learn, were jotted down 2000 years ago by the Greek philosopher Seneca.
The aim is to give the kids an opportunity to feel secure in thinking for themselves, speak their minds, and come to new approaches towards frustration and anger. As McArevey keeps on reminding the boys, there is no right answer. «Philosophy is about different thinking, and learning to hear different thinking and let that change our thinking».
In many ways, his methods remind us of modern anger management…
In order to fully appreciate the positive impact that McArevey has on his young charges, the audience needs to understand the historical context of the setting. Yet the style of direct cinema does not allow explanatory commentaries or interviews where context can be explained. The directors, Neasa Ní Chianáin and Declan McGrath, along with the editor, Philippe Ravoet, have tackled this challenge creatively by using several inventive ways to incorporate archives and explanatory information into the storyline without interrupting the flow of the narrative.
The film starts with scenes in which parents follow their children to school. By cross-cutting to the same sort of scene, but this time taken from archival footage of more violent times, we see schoolchildren and parents running in panic as snipers ambush them on their way to school. This cross-cutting between the present story and this archival material immediately understands how the violent past is still affecting the children today. Later, during a classroom discussion, we learn that these violent clips are from the year 2001 and not from the 1970s, as one might assume, which is rather shocking to the viewer.
The seriousness of the matter is also underlined early on when we watch a newsreel being shown in which McArevey expresses his shock of discovering a bomb device in the schoolyard! As the film unfolds, we observe the visual manifestations of the conflict that have an everyday presence in the children’s lives. One is the «Peace Wall» erected in 1969 as a ‘temporary’ solution to separate the conflicting parties physically. Today the wall has grown into a 21km long brick barrier topped with barbed wire, dividing quaint gardens and neighbourhoods of row houses. Banners encourage the inhabitants to vengeance, and each row house is decorated with political murals. In addition, political parades are continuously organised to intentionally add to the area’s tension.
It is truly admirable that one educator such as McArevey can inspire a fundamental change for the better. For him, it is not just about confronting the petty disputes and conflicts among the boys themselves. It is most important to encourage the boys to challenge their parents, who still hold on to the old vindictive way of thinking. As one young lad expresses in a class discussion, «We are all one family, and I am sure that everyone here as an uncle or aunt that is related to a Protestant and it is stupid to fight over something that happened 50 years ago; we all bleed the same colour, after all».