In a culture broken by its own history of pain, everyone needs a place of safety
The new documentary Young Plato tells the story of Elvis-loving school headmaster Kevin McArevey. As the headmaster of Holy Cross in Northern Belfast, McArevey has seen how anger and rage can destroy the hearts and minds of children. As a result, he and his staff have become determined to see the lives of their students changed in the midst of a community plagued by sectarian aggression and poverty. Backed by the principals of history’s greatest philosophers, Holy Cross seeks to challenge their children to think differently than their parents and use their minds to reshape their actions and future.
Directed by Neasa Ni Chianain and Declan McGrath, Young Plato is a remarkable story of hope and healing in an area marked by pain. With their naturalist approach to filmmaking, Ni Chianain and McGrath feel like the proverbial fly on the wall, observing the incredible lessons taking place within the walls of Holy Cross. Even without direct interviews with subjects, Plato still deeply connects the viewer with the hearts and passions of McArevey and his staff. Without interference, we can see the frustration on McArevey’s brow when he needs to speak to the same cousins multiple times about their friction and fighting. Then, when one student acts out against one of his staff, the sadness within his soul is almost palpable onscreen. With compassion in their eyes and patience in their hearts, McArevey and his group work tirelessly to create a place of peace within an area of turmoil and struggle.
In many ways, the connection to the larger area is one of the most powerful aspects of the film. By highlighting the relationship between the school and the surrounding area, Ni Chianain and McGrath are able to explore the vast ideological differences that exist between them. Located in Northern Belfast, the anger and tension that exists within the city and, more specifically, the homes of the students themselves bubbles underneath the surface in ways that could boil over at any moment. As a result, it becomes apparent very quickly that these kids are coming to school infected by the same internal rage that their family circumstances have brought into their homes. Whether it’s struggling to pay bills or simply cultural biases, the boys of Holy Cross arrive with something irking them underneath. However, through their emphasis on philosophical inquest, McArevey and his team are helping give their students the tools necessary to process their inner turmoil and frustrations. They are literally being changed by the renewing of their minds.
By emphasizing the power of expression and reflection, Holy Cross is giving these kids a chance for a new beginning.
What’s more, the impact that Holy Cross is having on the neighbourhood extends beyond the children themselves. Featuring footage of evening classes and home visits with the family, the film demonstrates McArevey’s desire for the parents to learn the tools that their children have adopted from their school environment. In a place where hearts are heavy, Holy Cross has become an oasis for the entire family. (Incidentally, Ni Chianain and McGrath further emphasize this point with their final shot of the film when, as the camera rises into the air, the school becomes the centerpiece of the neighbourhood.) With their commitment to students and parents, McArevey and his staff have created an environment of compassion and peace in the midst of their personal (and cultural) storms. For these families, Holy Cross means more than just a good education for their children.
For them, Holy Cross means hope.
With compassion and love, Young Plato truly is an experience to behold. Sitting silently behind her lens, Ni Chianain and McGrath shine a light on a place that is truly making a difference in the lives of its people. Whether it’s the students they see on a daily basis or the parents who care for them, Holy Cross’ emphasis on conversation and compassion are making providing a place of healing and inspiration for those in desperate need of restoration.
Because that’s simply what an oasis does.
Young Plato is now playing at DOC NYC ‘21.