Young Plato - Docville

Young Plato: A Stirring Portrait of the Power of Teaching and Philosophy

Aliosha Bielenberg | March 30, 2022

A sensitive observational documentary that is both enjoyable and compelling.

Young Plato - Docville
Young Plato © Docville

When I first heard that Docville would be screening Young Plato, I expected to see some depiction of ancient Athens on the screen. Instead, viewers last Thursday night were treated to a sensitive observational documentary set in Ardoyne, a neighborhood in north Belfast. At the Holy Cross Boys’ Primary School, the headmaster, Kevin McArevey, has run a program of philosophy for children for the past ten years. Neasa Ní Chaináin’s camera follows Mr. McArevey and the children of the school through their daily conflicts and little triumphs with empathy and sensitivity.

The film employs archival footage to show us the difficulties Ardoyne went through during the Troubles, with a “Peace Wall” still dividing the Protestant and Catholic communities. These long-simmering tensions are compounded by problems that many urban communities face: drugs, violence, and poverty. In an insightful post-screening conversation last Thursday, the directors emphasized that Holy Cross Boys’ Primary School and its crown jewel, the philosophy program, are a source of pride for the community.

The film does not shy away from the difficulties of life in Ardoyne. Urban decay and social issues are presented honestly and unflinchingly, and one memorable scene involves the funeral of a former Holy Cross student just seven years after he left the school. Yet the film does not indulge in maudlin sentimentality either. Instead, the directors work with a clear vision and excellent technique to observe the school at work, and present viewers with a tightly woven, engaging storyline. Much of the credit for shaping the film out of the many hours of primary footage must go to the Belgian editor, Philippe Ravoet.

At the film’s heart is Mr. McArevey, who is buoyant whether giving his children high-fives in the morning, sharing some Stoic wisdom with parents in assembly, or dancing to the music of Elvis Presley. And at the heart of Mr. McArevey is his faith in philosophical education. He has taken it upon himself to add an extra subject to the curriculum, adorning his classroom with portraits of Confucius, Kant, and Seneca, and a little bit of ivy, too. In this space, young students can engage in a Socratic Circle around questions like: “Is it okay to take out your anger on someone else?”. Mr. McArevey is an adept facilitator and guide for his young students, as they take the answers to questions like these into the messy real world.

The premise that both Mr. McArevey and the film share is that studying philosophy from such a young age can defuse violence and change lives. Philosophy emerges in this film as a fresh, vital, gleaming discipline – something that belongs in the playground and in discussions with seven-year-olds as much as in stuffy university lectures. This is a film about philosophy as a means for social change. It is one of those rare documentaries that is both enjoyable and compelling, especially for those of us with experience of other societies with long-simmering conflicts. I can only dream of a Mr. McArevey running a similar philosophy program in Cyprus, for instance.

In the final scene of Young Plato, a new mural is added to the brick walls of Ardoyne, which are otherwise adorned with images of guns and slogans reminding us of the Troubles. This new mural replaces the philosopher in Auguste Rodin’s The Thinker with a boy from Mr. McArevey’s class. Now, when teachers, parents, and students enter the Holy Cross Boys’ Primary School, they are reminded of the remarkable experiment that the school has witnessed over the past decade. And, thanks to Young Plato, many more of us from all over the globe can share in their pride and joy.