With Young Plato, Neasa Ní Chianáin continues her cinematic exploration — which began with In Loco Parentis (School Life) — of exceptional Irish teachers and the children whose lives they change. Young Plato screened at DOCNYC in 2021.
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With Young Plato, Neasa Ní Chianáin continues her cinematic exploration — which began with In Loco Parentis (School Life) — of exceptional Irish teachers and the children whose lives they change. In School Life, which she co-directed with David Rane (who serves as a producer, though not a director, on Young Plato), Ní Chianáin followed two teachers at an Irish boarding school, married couple Amanda Leyden and John Leyden, to show how these teachers took care of the children’s emotional and intellectual needs. In Young Plato, this time co-directed with Declan McGrath, Ní Chianáín (also serving as cinematographer) trains her camera on teacher Kevin McArevey, who teaches philosophy as a way to help boys process their emotions and find better ways of dealing with their anger. Both films keenly depict how great teachers who value critical thinking can be an important route to social change — but they can’t always entirely counteract the influence of wider society.
Young Plato is set at an all-boys Catholic primary school in Belfast’s Ardoyne, a place at the centre of the Troubles where “Peace Walls” have been installed all over town to physically separate Catholics and Protestants. In the film’s opening, Ní Chianáin offers drone footage of the area, grounding the story in a very specific place and its needs, even if McArevey’s methods could be more widely applied. Next, editor Philippe Ravoet expertly juxtaposes images of police in riot gear amidst violent crowds (which include children) with footage of parents taking their children to school — each on the same street corners. It’s a reminder that violence, anger, and hatred are deeply rooted in the community’s life, which makes combatting it at school all the more urgent and necessary.
In one of the first philosophy classes of the year, McArevey asks the boys to consider the question, “Is it OK to take out your anger on someone else?”. A talking stick in the form of a ball gets tossed between students as they express their opinions, are encouraged to listen to each other, and often change their point of view in the process. McArevey facilitates the conversation, but like Socrates to his Young Platos, never opines, only asks for clarification to make sure everyone has understood the point. As the boys think through their arguments, more of them side against it being OK to take out your anger on someone else for a myriad of reasons, and they collectively come up with alternative solutions, like a punching bag.
When the boys misbehave and get into scrapes — usually taking out their anger on someone else — the punishment isn’t detention but ‘philosophy board’: they spend their lunch hour with McArevey instead of playing outside, during which time they work to articulate, by writing on a white board, their feelings that led to the altercation, and strategies for dealing with a similar problem should it arise in future. Along the way, McArevey congratulates the boys on their thinking, always looks at incidents as one-time events rather than commentary on the boys’ characters, and helps correct grammar and spelling mistakes on the whiteboard. Whether it’s a theoretical idea discussed in class or the aftermath of a real event, McArevey uses the same philosophical principles to get the boys thinking. He’s not just asking questions but teaching the boys a methodology for working out their own issues.
It would be easy to make out McAverey as the lone saviour in a school full of backwards thinkers, but this is not the case, and Chianáin and McGrath take pains to show the support system that scaffolds his work. Teacher and Head of Special Needs Jan-Marie Reel emerges as a key player in how the school takes the boys’ emotions seriously, because they see part of their job as helping them learn to manage their emotions. In one scene, a misbehaving boy goes to talk to Jan-Marie about what’s angering and annoying him. Her method is to make a list: get him to articulate what’s bugging him and get it out in the open, and then she can figure out how the school can help the boy. She doesn’t push or judge him, only expresses interest in understanding what’s wrong so she can help where possible. His recent diagnosis of diabetes tops the list, but he also says he’s lonely and without friends. Keeping that in mind, Jan-Marie works to reinforce the support that he does have: when multiple teachers interrupt their meeting to check on the boy, she asks him how he got so popular.
Young Plato is full of incredible sequences like this, each crisply edited down into digestible segments, in which the boys inevitably get into scrapes, surface anger, or misbehave, and instead of slapping them on the wrist, the teachers at Holy Cross extend empathy. They note that this behaviour is not acceptable, but more importantly, they get to the heart of the problem. Teaching doesn’t end here; it continues. Their insistence that the boys articulate and work out their emotions both signals that their emotions matter and offers tools for dealing with them.
Having dealt firsthand with the trauma of the Northern Ireland conflict, and recovering from alcohol abuse himself, McAverey understands first hand that giving the boys tools to manage their anger, anxiety, and aggression is crucial for them to have a happy and successful life as individuals. It’s also key to creating a world where the next generation of boys aren’t hit as hard by the high suicide rates that currently plague both Ardoyne and Northern Ireland as a whole.
As McGrath notes in his director’s statement, “Scientists now believe that not only can post-conflict trauma adversely affect a society but also that such trauma can be passed on through generations. The effects of conflict can cruelly afflict children who have had no direct experience of a war that was waged before they were born by their parents and grandparents. It is a vicious and unjust cycle of suffering that becomes hard to break.” Ní Chianáin adds in her statement, “The head of Special Needs, Jan Marie Reel, explained to me that often the kids who struggled with academia were the very kids who were targeted by the dissidents, the drug dealers and organized crime. In a community where unemployment is high and opportunities scarce, kids who can’t use education as a route to a better future are often targeted by the unscrupulous. Making the right choices can easily become a matter of life and death in a community like Ardoyne. Learning to think for oneself, to reflect, analyse and plan, quickly becomes an essential life skill.”
Young Plato is a film that argues not just for the importance of empathy but for teaching it to young children — and that it can be taught — to help resolve societal and personal problems. It also comes after the Cannes premiere of two very thoughtful fiction films about children and the limits (and importance) of empathy and the general lack of communication between children and adults: Laura Wadel’s Playground and Eskil Vogt’s The Innocents.
In Playground, shot from the children’s perspective, Wadel depicts a primary school playground as akin to a prison ground, where so much physical and mental abuse happens between children that it’s impossible for well-intentioned teachers to police — and not all of them are that well-intentioned. In The Innocents, also shot from the children’s perspective, Vogt depicts the wide gap between children’s experiences and what adults can understand. The film also shows how a lack of understanding, and a lack of empathy, can be dangerous, where children hurt others without intending to — but learning empathy can change that.
Young Plato feels like a response to the problems affecting children which Playground and The Innocents highlight. It offers a way forward for better communication between children and adults by teaching children how to articulate their feelings, especially in terms that can be broadly understood. By showing the children in McArevey’s class brainstorming strategies for managing their anger and anxiety, it also serves as a roadmap for similar approaches that could be taken elsewhere. Perhaps, most importantly, Young Plato shows that school can’t end where recess begins: what happens in the classroom affects what happens outside of it, and it’s the teacher’s responsibility to help make that outside world safer for everyone.
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