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The School Where Children Can Do Whatever They Want (Pretty Much)

Director Amanda Rose Wilder talks about "Approaching the Elephant," her new documentary exploring one year at a free school.

Jiovanni in 'Approaching the Elephant' (2015), by Amanda Rose Wilder. Courtesy of Kingdom County Productions

Amanda Rose Wilder's new documentary Approaching the Elephant follows a year at the Teddy McArdle Free School in suburban New Jersey, an alternative elementary school organized around the principles of self-regulation. Named for a child prodigy from a J.D. Salinger story, Teddy McArdle consists of about a dozen students, several teachers, and no mandatory classes. At first glance, the school day seems to be improvised from moment to moment, with the adults relying on suggestion and a loose parliamentary style of rule-making to channel the students' energies around one project or another for the day, or not. The school seems to operate in a limbo between class and recess.

At the center of this activity is the school's founder Alex Khost, an endlessly energetic and patient man in his early 30s who hated school as a child and is determined to create something better as an adult. Much of the drama revolves around two of his pupils: Jiovanni, a sensitive and creative 11-year-old boy who often becomes a disruptive and destructive presence, and Lucy, an outspoken and critical seven-year-old, who swings back and forth between being attracted to Jio and being bullied by him. In one of the film's most memorable scenes, Lucy tells Alex, "I don't like the things he does, but it's boring when he's not here," more or less framing everyone's relationship with Jiovanni. Can Alex's radical vision for a new kind of school deal with a bright, charismatic kid who won't cooperate?

A disciple of the Maysles Brothers and their Direct Cinema revolution of the 1960s, Rose Wilder found a perfect subject in the Teddy McArdle Free School for her fast-moving, observational style, which arrives free of commentary or context in a timeless black-and-white presentation. This stylistic choice feels important, because it helps release the film from the realm of current events and moves it closer to a timeless study of childhood, capturing something raw and elemental about how children are that isn't specific to any decade. No matter your opinions on education or your personal experience of childhood, you'll find it hard to experience Approaching the Elephant without feeling affected.

Trailer of 'Approaching the Elephant' (2015) by Amanda Rose Wilder. Courtesy of Kingdom County Productions

VICE: How did you come across the Teddy McArdle Free School and why did you decide to make a film there?
Amanda Rose Wilder: I started the film when I graduated from college, about eight years ago. Before that, my main interest was poetry and then I sort of transitioned over to film, and I found Direct Cinema to be sort of an interesting mirror of poetry in film. I remember watching the Maysles Brothers' Gimme Shelter and thinking about how you can unpack that film unendingly. It's fun to unpack in the way that a poem is fun to unpack. Meeting Alex Khost had everything to do with my interest in making a film about the school because he was so open and charming. Opening the school really mattered to Alex. He'd been bullied and hated going to school when he was young, and didn't want his newborn son to have to go through the same experience. I was excited by the idea of people starting something new and mostly doing it on their own, and I wanted to see it unfold. The individuals at Teddy McArdle and what happened between them are really the story.

One of things I was most impressed by was how the school charges its students with running an active democracy in order to get anything done. The idea that students and teachers are equal and have the same degree of power in the school sounds simple and appealing on the surface. Over the course of the film, you begin to appreciate how heavy this responsibility is, and it's incredible to watch children work to deal with it. It's very different from the traditional American public-school experience, which is not very democratic at all, or only in highly mediated and controlled situations.
There is a scene where Lucy calls a meeting on Alex for harassment—actually, for not allowing her to jump off of a storage bin—for making a rule by himself instead of voting on it as a democratic community. It's such a mind warp because both Lucy and Alex are treating each other with such respect as equals, and yet she's seven and he's 31. For me, the movie is about kids making real decisions for themselves. Most of the time when you see a movie where this happens, it's not about kids in school but kids who live on the street, like the documentary Streetwise. The free school model allowed me to capture something about childhood that you aren't often allowed to see. The tensions and fighting and bullying, which exist in all schools, but the community and joy and inspiration as well.

Lucy in 'Approaching the Elephant' (2015), by Amanda Rose Wilder. Courtesy of Kingdom County Productions

The way the students and teachers resolve their problems with Jiovanni, the most disruptive kid in the school, was really surprising. Having to collectively decide whether or not to expel a disruptive classmate is not a situation that most elementary schools place their students in. By the time we arrive at this scene, you have to be impressed at how proactive the Teddy McArdle kids need to be in order to maintain a school that functions at all.
There have been conflicting reactions to how the narrative of the film unfolds. Some people see the school as dissolving into chaos, and some people see the school coming together and starting to work in functional way. For me, the school was like a family at that point. Everyone really cared about Jiovanni, the student who they had to make a huge decision about whether or not to expel, who had been given months and months of second chances. I was myself expelled from high school and it was such a different experience, a one-strike-and-you're-out kind of thing. Jiovanni himself completely understood what was happening to him.

At screenings of the film, Alex is sometimes asked what he would have done differently. While many things could have been done differently, it's hard to really do something for the first time again, you know what I mean? Everyone has a first time, and it's always imperfect. I like that about the film, that it shows imperfections and shows people not always acting the best. Not every documentary has to be about a perfect hero. Alex does behave heroically at times, but he's human and he has flaws, we all do.

What's your hope for the film? What do you hope people see and take away from it? Can it contribute to a larger conversation about education or politics or life?
I think that whenever you're filming something, you are promoting it in some way. What I hope the movies promotes is someone like Alex trying something new, and not necessarily doing it right the first time. Giving something new a shot. I remember meeting Alex and how his face was so alive and so excited when he was talking about starting this new and different school. I would rather film someone like that than someone who's been doing the same thing for years and looks dead. I have my own feelings about free schools, but the movie is more about childhood in general and touches on larger questions about democracy and community. Lucy and Jiovanni are examples of how a child can be scary and inspiring all at once. Kids need to make mistakes and do things wrong and cry. Just like adults do. Focusing on two people who are under ten and showing all the qualities of their personalities was important for me, showing the rawness and messiness of childhood.

Approaching the Elephant plays in Brooklyn February 20 through 26 as part of the Screen Forward series at the Made In NY Media Center.