'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.


In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Keep reading... Show less

Pauline Black may be called the Queen of Ska by some, but she insists she's not the only one, as Two-Tone legends the Selecter celebrate another stellar album in a career full of them.

Being commonly hailed as the "Queen" of a genre of music is no mean feat, but for Pauline Black, singer/songwriter of Two-Tone legends the Selecter and universally recognised "Queen of Ska", it is something she seems to take in her stride. "People can call you whatever they like," she tells PopMatters, "so I suppose it's better that they call you something really good!"

Keep reading... Show less

Morrison's prose is so engaging and welcoming that it's easy to miss the irreconcilable ambiguities that are set forth in her prose as ineluctable convictions.

It's a common enough gambit in science fiction. Humans come across a race of aliens that appear to be entirely alike and yet one group of said aliens subordinates the other, visiting violence upon their persons, denigrating them openly and without social or legal consequence, humiliating them at every turn. The humans inquire why certain of the aliens are subjected to such degradation when there are no discernible differences among the entire race of aliens, at least from the human point of view. The aliens then explain that the subordinated group all share some minor trait (say the left nostril is oh-so-slightly larger than the right while the "superior" group all have slightly enlarged right nostrils)—something thatm from the human vantage pointm is utterly ridiculous. This minor difference not only explains but, for the alien understanding, justifies the inequitable treatment, even the enslavement of the subordinate group. And there you have the quandary of Otherness in a nutshell.

Keep reading... Show less

A 1996 classic, Shawn Colvin's album of mature pop is also one of best break-up albums, comparable lyrically and musically to Joni Mitchell's Hejira and Bob Dylan's Blood on the Tracks.

When pop-folksinger Shawn Colvin released A Few Small Repairs in 1996, the music world was ripe for an album of sharp, catchy songs by a female singer-songwriter. Lilith Fair, the tour for women in the music, would gross $16 million in 1997. Colvin would be a main stage artist in all three years of the tour, playing alongside Liz Phair, Suzanne Vega, Sheryl Crow, Sarah McLachlan, Meshell Ndegeocello, Joan Osborne, Lisa Loeb, Erykah Badu, and many others. Strong female artists were not only making great music (when were they not?) but also having bold success. Alanis Morissette's Jagged Little Pill preceded Colvin's fourth recording by just 16 months.

Keep reading... Show less

Frank Miller locates our tragedy and warps it into his own brutal beauty.

In terms of continuity, the so-called promotion of this entry as Miller's “third" in the series is deceptively cryptic. Miller's mid-'80s limited series The Dark Knight Returns (or DKR) is a “Top 5 All-Time" graphic novel, if not easily “Top 3". His intertextual and metatextual themes resonated then as they do now, a reason this source material was “go to" for Christopher Nolan when he resurrected the franchise for Warner Bros. in the mid-00s. The sheer iconicity of DKR posits a seminal work in the artist's canon, which shares company with the likes of Sin City, 300, and an influential run on Daredevil, to name a few.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.