Film Irish Culture

YOUNG PLATO – “If I can dream…”

Film Review

by Krisztina Kodó

6 February 2023

Young Plato is an observational documentary filmed in Ardoyne North Belfast in 2020 and 2021. The film features as the opening film within the documentary festival. The screening of the film was sponsored by the Embassy of Ireland in Budapest which took place in Mammut Cinema City, Budapest from 21 to 23 January 2023.

The film focuses on a very sensitive topic, namely religious conflict, still a current issue in present day Northern Ireland. The location is the Holy Cross Boys’ Primary School in Ardoyne, North Belfast. The major protagonist of the film is the school’s principal, Kevin McAverey, whose exceptional pedagogical methods with small boys have become widely known. So much so that Declan McGrath, the director of the film heard of the school and its principle and found it interesting enough to seek it out.

The film took over a year to make with the pandemic adding a few extra months until the work could be finalized. According to Neasa Ní Chianán the film took altogether eighteen months to complete. The film crew consisted of McGrath, and producers David Rane and Neasa Ní Chianáin. The makers had made a similar documentary prior to this, which they expanded in the current one by using the observational method in filming. Declan and Niessa were the only ones present at the school, basically three days a week and were pretty much free to film whoever and whatever they wanted, except for certain sensitive scenes. The crew, using only one camera, became pretty much a part of school life.

The Holy Cross Boys’ Primary School is one of the legacies of the Catholic schools from the past. There are still about five boys’ schools left in Belfast with many changes taking place. These educational facilities have been converted into mixed schools over the past years, however, progress is slow.  

Throughout the film we see shots of Northern Ireland, with a focus on Belfast and Ardoyne, the Catholic neighbourhood where the primary school is located. We see images of peace walls, built more than four decades ago to stop violence. The alternating shots of the present and the past showing the streets and neighbourhood of the school highlight the tragedies that took its toll on the lives of those living there. This is what peace looks like in Northern Ireland – communities separated by a wall up to six metres high; gates along its length that are still locked at night; and artwork painted on either side that talks of harmony but with messages of revenge or oppression.

Why is this school different? Obviously, Kevin McAverey, the principal of the school is the force behind the incentive. The film captures a unique character whose method of teaching philosophy to small boys and its accommodation in school help the children handle violence. This, however, is not the official part of the curricula.

Kevin McAverey grew up in Belfast during the middle of the Troubles and his father was a member of the IRA. His family was burnt out of their home, and he came from a very poor background. He was the first from his family to go to university. But like many of his generation he too struggled with alcoholism and violence. According to the producers, McAverey was able to overcome his emotional excesses, and stopped drinking. Since the school’s district is still marked by a high rate of suicide, he wanted to make his mark on his school.

McAverey has a “dream of a better land where all my brothers walk hand in hand” as Elvis Presley sings in his famous song “If I can dream”. He is a great Elvis Presley fan, with Elvis figures in his car and on his office desk.  The song serves as a dramatic effect and underlying motto for the film. Is Elvis Presley an inspiration for McAverey?!

In their effort to find the teachers who wanted to be in the film, the film crew went from teacher to teacher in the school. And the boys featuring mostly in the film are the “bad boys”, who went to the so-called philosophy board; that is how they found Alfie. The question that interested the film makers was how philosophy was able to help the academically not gifted children. How these children can overcome violence and learn to control their emotions. Due to the seriousness of the drug scene locally these children are the most susceptible to being found by drug dealers.

The brilliant structural composition of the film effectively communicates its message to an international audience. Past and present are highlighted through flashback shots, but the film looks to a future that seeks its “young Platos”, who need to be educated by outstanding teachers like McAverey, because the past has shown that “violence breeds violence”. Though Plato as philosopher does not feature in the film, rather Socrates, nevertheless, Plato’s name is perhaps more widely known, and people may find it easier to relate to than Socrates.

The film achieves with great precision to communicate McAverey’s goal or “dream of a better land” which is to offer a solution for the Northern Irish children, the future generation; the educated “Young Platos” are an alternative for peace and understanding within the Belfast community and in Northern Ireland.