There is no real secret to good education. Buried beneath a groaning stack of Government statistics is one simple truth: if you invest in schools education, standards will rise. The reason why it is never spelled out this way is essentially because Governments would be forced to spend a lot more money in areas where education standards are lowest. Historically this has never been a priority so one shouldn’t expect anything to change in this regard. Watching Ballymun Lullaby the return on investment (however meagre that investment is) is plain to see. It is also clear that investment isn’t only financial. Investment of time and effort is as important and it is here that the sheer triumph of this documentary is apparent.
Directed by Frank Berry, Ballymun Lullaby begins with a ‘Reeling in the Years’ style montage of the history of Ballymun. This is an important context to add to the documentary as it shows the scale of change that has happened with Ballymun regeneration programme which has demolished six of the seven towers. Housing has replaced the flats and indeed it is instructive to see just one tower standing, an indicator of the economic downturn that has halted many large projects. In the midst of all this change, the documentary focuses on a music teacher Ron Cooney who is striving to put on a concert with the Ballymun youth choir. This is to be a concert about Ballymun, with original music done in collaboration with composer Darragh O’Toole.
Every documentary of this type needs a charismatic central protagonist and in Ron Cooney, boy, does this film succeed. He is charming, effortlessly funny and more importantly, he cares. The camera loves him. This story is to some degree a similar one to the classic Hollywood film tradition of the teacher in the deprived area who didn’t give up on the kids such as Dangerous Minds. But the setting alone means that sentimentality is kept at bay. Self deprecating humour means from the throughout the film stops any easy sentimentalism creeping in. The people involved in the music program are interviewed and not once are the audience invited to feel sorry for them. This is not the X Factor and these people are not ‘on a journey’. They are hard working people from tough backgrounds who have talent that is plain to see. The difference here is that they have someone in Cooney who can bring it out. The utopia would be that all schools should have teachers and programs like this. But that will not happen sadly. What comes across here from the people interviewed is the pride they have in their community. They love Ballymun. This is welcoming to hear as a counterpoint to the standard crime/drugs stories invariably heard on the news about working class areas like Ballymun.
But it is in the creation of the music for the concert that this documentary triumphs. The music is terrific with one particular children’s choir piece that raises the hairs on the back of your neck. This is a simple story beautifully told: a searing call to arms for more investment in the unending potential of our young. In a society where people a few years older are leaving Ireland in their droves, this message has never been more important. Cooney buzzes as he helps prepare the kids for their performance, seeming to believe that music can change the children’s lives. And as the camera intercuts between shots of poverty with children singing with passion, it is so easy for the audience to believe this too. There is no greater endorsement of a film than that.