This documentary about school life brought back happy memories of Nicolas Philibert’s classic Etre et Avoir from a generation ago, about a gentle teacher in rural France helping his infants understand the meaning of life. Kevin McArevey is the dynamic headteacher of Holy Cross Boys’ primary school in north Belfast, in a community once scarred by the Troubles.
Mr McArevey loves Elvis, martial arts – and classical philosophy. For his nine-and 10-year-olds, he has introduced lessons with maxims from the great thinkers of Ancient Greece as talking points, and he is using these lessons as a way of learning new modes of thinking, strategies to defuse violence and head off confrontation, and it culminates with his bold plan to put up a big new mural on the streets: not the traditional icons of sectarianism, but Plato, Socrates and Aristotle. It hardly needs to be said that McArevey believes Belfast’s men of violence learned their mindset in the school playground (maybe some learned it in his own school playground) so he wants to plant something new.
This is an open and good-natured film, with some great setpiece scenes with poignant closeups on kids’ faces as they ponder why they are so angry and what can be done about it (although I have to admit I found myself thinking about the classic classroom scene from the TV comedy Derry Girls about what Catholics and Protestants have in common). In some ways, this is a film about the “Dr Jekyll” side of the school: the rational disavowal of violence and genuine demonstrations of penitence that follow the “Mr Hyde” flashes of violence that inevitably happen off camera, and so the effect is sometimes, perhaps not entirely intentionally, one of dysfunction. But the school is no more dysfunctional than any other institution and a lot more intelligent and self-questioning than many. A very engaging film.