'Approaching the Elephant' Lets the Students Speak for Themselves

Amanda Wilder's remarkable "free school" documentary shows all sorts of pleasures and tensions among the kids and adults as they figure out how to manage such an experiment.

Approaching the Elephant

Director: Amanda Rose Wilder
Cast: Dana Bennis, Dennis Charles, Alexander Khost, Elizabeth McCarthy, Pat Gamsby, Mason Shepherd
Rated: NR
Studio: Kingdom County Productions
Year: 2014
US date: 2014-12-15 (The DocYard)

"Perhaps there’s a link between the erosion of child culture and the erosion of independent cinema. Films are less wild, less messy, less alive and energetic. More documentarians should take cues from Cassavetes and less from advertising and grant qualifiers."

-- Amanda Rose Wilder

"I don't want the rule to form that we can't play violent games on the computer or our imagination." Lucy scrunches her face as she speaks, working through her idea while the words come out. It's a dilemma, how to decide on a rule, a dilemma Lucy and her classmates at the Terry McArdle Free School face more than once during their first year. It's not that Lucy is inclined to violence. But she's not so sure that a rule that cuts off playing at or even thinking about this abstraction called violence is what she wants.

Lucy is eight years old.

By the time you come to this moment, midway in Approaching the Elephant, you're less surprised at Lucy's sophisticated formulation than you may be reading about it here. A "recording of" the school's first year of existence in New Jersey, Amanda Wilder's remarkable documentary shows all sorts of dynamics, pleasures, and tensions among the kids and adults, as they figure out how to manage such an experiment. All might be considered students, for they have no curriculum and no set of rules as they begin. Rather, as school founder Alex Khost puts it, they are all in this adventure together, making use of "democratic" principle, discussing and voting, in order to come to agreements, and maybe to some sense of order and fairness. "We're not starting off with a whole bunch of rules here," Alex says as the film begins. "Maybe some safety rules," he allows. Instead, "We'll make them up as we go along," deciding as they might be needed or desired.

The proposal sounds hopeful, and certainly runs counter to conventional social training, the kind that pervades schools in the US, whether public or private or charter. In most schools, order is the goal, conformity the means. Screening at the DocYard on 15 December, followed by a Q&A with director Amanda Wilder, the movie reveals how, at the Terry McArdle Free School, both kids and adults examine these very concepts, which is not to say they reject them. Rather, they consider and reconsider costs as well as benefits. They imagine alternatives, they collaborate and they challenge one another. They also go through processes, call meetings and make proposals.

It's during this step in a process that Lucy wonders about violence and rules. Earlier, following an episode where boys were pushing and scaring her, she asked for a way to curb some behaviors, what Alex translated for the group as "a rule that if you're playing roughly, you're allowed to tell people you want to have a break." They voted in support of that rule. This time, though, the parameters are sounding less defined. Even if Lucy doesn't articulate the question, it looms over this brilliant experiment and also over the film: how can you prohibit thought, what you do in your imagination? And even if you could, would you want to?

It's a problem that can't be resolved, but that's pretty much the beauty of it, as the participants in the free school come to experience, if not precisely know or say. And neither does Approaching the Elephant, being that rare film that observes without judging, its gorgeous black and white imagery at once intimate and conspicuous, a sign of its art and its many truths (and, a way to grant a what Wilder calls a "timeless feel"). This isn't to say the film doesn't make choices, as it follows Lucy's story, or Alex's, or that of Giovanni, a kid who, quite unlike Lucy, appears to act without thinking of others or how his actions might trouble or hurt them. The structure they embody does come to a difficult climax late in the film, but that structure, a function of editing and who fills which frame, by who leaves a space or runs through it, isn't what you might expect either. It's not seeking order but is instead a process, a series of questions about the possibilities and the occasional pain of order.

At least one question has to do with who decides on order, who defines it. In this context, the children's responses to their new freedom at the free school are terrifically variable. Following a tough compromise vote, Lucy knows what's next. "I need to go and have fun, okay?" Alex, the adult, agrees, "Me too!" Ethan or Jalen delight in being able to choose what subjects to study, or what talents to reveal in the winter solstice showcase (Jalen opts for a sampling of armpit-farts), and Lucy faces a tough moment when asked to comment on a friend's artwork: "It's not my favorite kind of painting, I guess it's just not my style. I'm not trying to be mean," she begins. "I'm just saying I don't like it." The young artist remains quiet, the camera shifting from face to face to painting.

How does anyone know what to like or not like, how to be mean or be nice? The film doesn't reveal backgrounds, though it offers a couple of conversations with parents who worry or marvel but don't explain. Alex comes with his own baggage, which he shares, having to do with how little he liked school when he was a kid, how this endeavor is a dream 16 years in the making, and how "furious" he is at the boy Jio, who can't even say what's bothering him, why he's acting out repeatedly despite warnings and requests and even demands that he not. "I care about you as a person," Alex tells the dilemma sitting before him, hair flopped over one eye. "But I see you hurt so many people so many times." Alex might resist responsibility ("I am not a therapist, I am not a punching bag") even as Jio might ("I don't care").

And amid the turmoil and the fear and the frustration, Approaching the Elephant offers Lucy. Like other kids at the school, and some adults too, she wrestles with what's in front of her. And so the film does too, between its lovely close-ups of children's faces and lingering long shots of exquisitely underlit hallways. The movie doesn't speak for anyone, so they tell you what they might.


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