Approaching the Elephant Dir. Amanda Rose Wilder

[Kingdom County; 2014]

Styles: documentary
Others: Truffaut, Little Feet

Cooperating is hard. If you’ve ever lived in a co-op house or commune, worked for a cooperative, been involved in an Occupy protest, whatever, I assume I needn’t explain: even when you’re certain that it’s the right thing to do, it’s difficult to constantly function on a group schedule, let alone consistently do your part for the good of said group. The question, then, is where that general sentiment falls on the nature/nurture spectrum: mainstream western culture and education certainly does little to encourage cooperation beyond the absolutely necessary, but what if one were able to get to children before they were “poisoned” by capitalism’s objectivist selfishness? Could we create a co-op generation?

Approaching the Elephant, the debut documentary from Amanda Rose Wilder, documents one group’s attempt to set up a free school and experiment with this very question. At Teddy McArdle Free School in Little Falls, New Jersey, children are given space to find their own pace and moral compass. In this socialist/democratic microcosm, kid spats are defused by group meetings instead of detention, and children are free to come and go as they please. They’re afforded the opportunity to learn; it’s their responsibility to accept it.

Results, unsurprisingly, are mixed: the children at the school seem to have quickly adapted to the communication modes inherent to the new model, but they’re still kids, as self-centered and emotionally unstable as any others. It’s bumpy terrain, to say the least, and it’s questionable whether school founder Alex Khost and his small, ardent staff are up to the challenge.

The biggest challenge to the experiment comes in the form of Jiovanni, a quintessential “problem child” who jams the gears of Khost and Co.’s experiment like a Bart Simpson (Poochy the Dog?) shaped monkeywrench. Jiovanni is a free school’s worst nightmare, precisely because he takes the liberty afforded him and demands more, undermining the school’s social contract and calling its entire functionality into question. He climbs out of windows, starts physical fights with other kids, and generally moves through the school like a tornado. On paper, nobody needs a loosey-goosey schooling opportunity more than kids like Jiovanni; in practice, though, this kind of case requires a saintly patience that Khost, and indeed nearly anyone, lacks.

Wilder, who filmed at the school for two years, shows without telling here, and Approaching the Elephant is better for it. Her cinéma vérité approach to the material is understated and effective, putting the viewer into the center of this unusual child universe; I know it worked, because I felt almost as anxious watching this film as I do being around children IRL. Wilder doesn’t try to solve the school’s problems or choose sides: when the conflict between Khost and Jiovanni comes to a head, neither comes out looking like a hero.

It would have been easy to kern the narrative here in favor of (or against) the free school model, and it’s a testament to the film’s integrity that it avoids as much. Approaching the Elephant doesn’t try to show that the free school model works or doesn’t; instead, it simply presents the case evidence, leaving the audience to draw its own conclusions. One hopes that the film’s viewers can operate with this freedom better than some of the children depicted herein.

Most Read