APPROACHING THE ELEPHANT
2014, 89 minutes
Review by Joshua Handler
This review was originally published out of BAMcinémaFest on June 22, 2014.
"I frequently feel that great documentaries are more compelling than great narratives because there is no substitute for real life. However, great as many documentaries are, there are few that can actually be called "profound" or can change your perception on life."Amanda Rose Wilder's Approaching the Elephant is a documentary that can be called profound. Wilder's film documents the first year of a "free school". The one chronicled in this film is the 262nd free school in the world. In these schools, the students create their own education, and on nearly all matters, the students and teachers vote together, and the students choose what classes, if any, they want to take.
Wilder's film is an immersive look into the first year of the Teddy McArdle school and what happens when a problem student begins to threaten the fragile stability of the school. What's remarkable about Approaching the Elephant is that Wilder stays neutral on the school. Never once does her portrait of the school become tainted by her own opinion. Wilder trusts us enough to allow us to form our own opinions on the school.
Shooting in black-and-white with a 4:3 aspect ratio, Wilder immerses us in the world of the school while remaining invisible to all around her. Watching Approaching the Elephant, I forgot that someone was behind the camera, that there even was a camera. Wilder places herself in the middle of every scene and shows everything going on in the school. No one looks at the camera or even acknowledges it. Effectively, the camera and Wilder are invisible.
Above all of what I just wrote, what makes Approaching the Elephant such a profound film is that it shows what happens when children are put in a position of authority, when they have an equal vote in everything. If children are charged with running an organization, it is very likely, as witnessed in this film, that things will quickly become chaotic and ugly.
The film shows how children's cognitive maturity varies even within children in the same age group. During a few of the McArdle school meetings shown in the film, students try to solve problems. What's fascinating is that some of the students think of the big picture, while others think only of the present and how the outcome of the meeting would affect the next moment. This film proves why the "free school" model is risky and why, flaws and all, a traditional school would be more effective than this school. At least in a traditional school, the children would be safe (you'll see just how unsafe the McArdle school is when you see this movie), the students would learn core subjects that will help them down the road, and they would have stability, something that's distinctly lacking at the McArdle school.
At the Teddy McArdle school the teachers' intentions are good and their hearts are in the right place - there's no doubting that. However, while some problems can be attributed to first-year growing pains, some others are simply that the children are too powerful with the adults having little to no authority over them. Again, the fact that Wilder did not shove her opinions about this school in our faces is admirable.
Overall, Approaching the Elephant is a riveting, unsettling, and unusually smart documentary from a documentarian who should be put on everyone's film radars. A film like this would be a child psychologist's or teacher's dream, but is also completely accessible to general audiences.
APPROACHING THE ELEPHANT will be playing at the Made in New York Media Center from February 20-26.