In faithful vérité form, Approaching the Elephant offers little in the way of contextualization. Director Amanda Rose Wilder opens her film with two title cards, the second of which explains that the following is a “recording” of the attempt to open the Teddy McArdle Free School, the 262nd institution of its kind worldwide. The action from then on out functions as a 4:3 black and white Rorschach test, invoking the viewers’ preconceived notions about education, and whether a method that folds its pupils into the governing fabric is a disaster, or an unorthodox success.
In the basement of a church somewhere in New Jersey, Wilder’s camera captures the first year in Teddy’s run, a whirlwind of convictions, spats, and learning—though perhaps learning of the emotional order more than anything else. I spoke to Wilder about the draw of alternative education, the multivalence of her imagery, and the role of judgments in filmmaking. Approaching the Elephant opens at the MiNY Media Center by IFP on February 20th, nearly a year after its world premiere at True/False.
Watching this again for the first time in almost a year, I get the strange feeling that Approaching the Elephant could almost function as the connective tissue to any documentary about elementary schoolchildren. It’s like a never-ending recess, a look at the subjects at their most unrestrained and without adult guidance or mediation. When you first started poring through your footage, did you have a general idea about how you wanted to structure it? It moves seamlessly from day to day.
To me, it’s more about individuals and childhood and community than about a specific model of education, which is a context. I actually think it connects less to other films about school than to those about children in other situations where they’re able to make real decisions for themselves, which tends to happen for the most part outside of school environments. Films such as Pixote, Streetwise, Children Underground. Interestingly all of these films are about kids on the streets. I guess that’s where we’re used to seeing kids so free. And I think it also connects to films about alternative communities such as Warrendale and Asylum, where you’re constantly bouncing back and forth between finding the methods used right or wrong—which I think, as a viewer, is a good place to be in.
On the first day of the Teddy McArdle Free School, I realized there were three fascinating people I’d do anything to follow: Alex, who started the school; Lucy, who was seven, whip-smart and constantly asking questions; and Jiovanni, who was eleven and clearly had so much going for him, and was also struggling with some troubles in his life. I was interested in how the first year of the school would unfold. And so it was about following these three people and what took place at the school. The film starts on the first day and ends on the last.
Did you only film for the first year? What was your shooting schedule like?
I filmed about 40 hours of the second year. But on the first day of the second year I got there and felt like the story was over. It had ended with the last shot of the film, of a dark hallway on the last day of the first year. Or maybe it was a different story. Two of the main people I’d been following were gone. It was a different energy.
The first year I shot the first two weeks straight, and then after that, about two weeks of each month. I was always scared I was going to miss something. And how could I not? The film is my experience of that year of the school—I’m sure everyone who was there each has a completely different story.
At one point, Alex somewhat rhetorically says, “Is this really working? We probably won’t know for another twenty years.” Having spent so much time around Teddy McArdle, what do you think attracted the parents to the free school curriculum, an essential gamble on their children’s education? For Jiovanni, we sense that it may be a simple result of running out of other options.
Maybe it was a gamble because the school was new, but it wasn’t an experiment—the longest running free school, Summerhill, has been around almost one hundred years, and there’s documentation of Summerhill’s and several other free school’s graduates, and they’re just fine.
Everyone came from a variety of learning environments: public schools, conventional private schools, other alternative schools, homeschooling, unschooling. The main thing that the parents seemed to have in common was they were looking for a self-directed learning environment for their children. And yes, some of the young people had tried out several schools that hadn’t fit. Free schools tend to attract a lot of seven-to-ten year old boys. The kind of kid who has trouble sitting at a desk all day.
Lucy makes offhanded comments about how she can’t write, and the kids seem to spend the majority of their time in woodworking or bickering their way towards emergency meetings. One of them hoists a flag atop the clubhouse they have toiled over that reads, “The Clubhoose Rulers.” Did you ever film a “traditional” class? If so, what was your reason for excluding it?
If you watch closely, Lucy actually learned to read and write over the course of the year—how, I can’t say.
The film certainly brings up questions your reflections suggest: At what point should a child know how to read or write, and who should determine this? The child? An adult? If an adult, which adult? The parent, teacher, the state? Is it better for children to learn to negotiate their own conflicts or for an adult authority figure to stomp them out for them?
“Traditional” is a tricky word because conventional education today is actually a very new model relative to the models of education throughout history (apprenticeships, one-room schoolhouses, etc.). What we now know as conventional education stems from early 20th century attempts to train factory workers in reading, writing and arithmetic.
There were classes at Teddy McArdle where one person was the “teacher” in charge and the others the “learners.” Sometimes these classes were taught by adults, such as Alex’s web development class, and some by students, such as Jalen’s acting class.
You get a sense in the film that classes such as these took place. To me it was less about exhaustively documenting the ins and outs of the school and all that went on there and more about the stories of individuals and their interactions with each other, and in my experience, the meat of those stories took place outside of the more conventional classes and in places such as the woodshop and in democratic meetings.
The very subtle asides mentioned above notwithstanding, I think the film does a remarkable job of remaining objective. How did you and Robert Greene, the editor, achieve that?
Well, those moments you mention are not in the film to make a certain statement or to state a singular opinion. I wouldn’t want anyone to think that. All of the shots in the film are there because they resonate in some way—viscerally, emotionally, intellectually, and never for one reaction, but for their potential to invoke innumerable reactions.
For example, let’s take the “Clubhoose Rulers.” I know that people who believe that children six to twelve should know how to write precisely will react a certain way, and people who think children should learn to write when they wish may pay no mind to it, or perhaps see it as a positive sign that the kids were allowed to take their time. Other people will swing back and forth between these views. Other people still will focus while watching the shot on the sense of camaraderie as the children work together under the clubhouse sign (the main reason I wanted the shot in there). Others will laugh at the mattress stuffed into the top bunk.
This is the fable of approaching the elephant, which is about six blind men who touch an elephant, and although they touch the same animal, come to their own interpretations of what an elephant is based on what they each perceive. In J.D. Salinger’s short story “Teddy,” which the school was named after, Teddy, a genius child, is on a cruise with his terrible family, and a journalist who knows him comes up to Teddy and asks him how he would change the education system, and he recounts this fable as something he would have all the children do: approach an elephant and come to their own conception of what an elephant is. So that’s where the title comes from.
I guess this gets to the matter of judgment. Everyone makes judgments—you can’t get out of that. The point for Robert and I was to construct in such a way that people were engaged with the story and able to come, as much as possible, to their own conclusions. That’s not to say we don’t have our own judgments. But we knew there was so much more to be gained from allowing people space to think. I think that’s respectful filmmaking—of the people in the film, and of the viewers.
In some ways, Alex appears to be rectifying his own schooling experiences through McArdle, but he has an amorphous role amongst his students. He can operate on their level to such a point that it almost seems like bullying late in the film. I don’t want you to speak on his behalf, but in retrospect, do you feel like he was satisfied and pleased with his work, or were there things he would have changed?
I think Alex is more someone who wants to move on and do things differently the next time around than someone who looks back and thinks about how he could have done things differently the first time. He’s now looking to start an adventure playground in Brooklyn. At adventure playgrounds, instead of a predetermined space and structures, adults provide loose parts such as giant tubes, sheets and rope for kids to construct their own play.
As a filmmaker, I’m drawn to people who are alive, who are going through a process of discovery, so much more so than to people who have been doing the same things for 35 years, or who are staring at their TVs or phones, and are just, you can see in their face, dead.
None of us are perfect. The Teddy McArdle Free School wasn’t perfect. But at least the people there were trying something; they cared, and they ultimately had to make a difficult decision together, but at that point in the movie, I really feel like they had come to care about each other as a family. All of that was very exciting, difficult, and beautiful to capture.
You modestly credit yourself as “camera.” Given the number of moving parts (i.e. rambunctious children), was it a challenge to be the sole operator? You also shot in color. What was the reasoning behind the black and white transfer?
I say camera and not director because I didn’t direct anyone at the school. And it forefronts that the camera’s my eye. You see my thought process through how I move the camera. I’ve almost always shot solo. I don’t really like the idea of negotiating with a crew, although maybe that will change. But I think crews make you a slower animal, and a larger presence.
Sometimes it would be challenging if I found myself alone with the kids, and when things escalated and I had to decide whether to make my voice heard or hang back. This was particularly confusing with Lucy, who sought out physical interactions with the boys. But I was never truly afraid for anyone.
We kept throwing footage in black and white and saying, “Oh man, it looks so good this way!” It was an intuitive choice. Also the film is in the 4:3 old Academy aspect ratio (which I love for how it frames people’s bodies), and it goes along with this retro feel that I’m rather fond of.