Approaching the Elephant (Wilder Films, NR)

Wilder smartly resists the urge to make a statement on this type of schooling.


Amanda Rose Wilder’s debut feature Approaching the Elephant is a documentary about a counterculture school in Little Falls, New Jersey. The Teddy McArdle Free School (TMFS) takes a radical approach to education. In the tradition of the free schools of the late 60s and early 70s, the TMFS doesn’t give students grades or even require them to attend class—the idea being that learning is a choice and that forcing learning in traditional schools is the state’s agenda, which in turn changes children into will-deficient adults that learn to accept the status quo. (It should come to no surprise that these schools are typically run by anarchists.) The TMFS operates under the philosophies of A.S. Neill, a freethinking educator and author of Summerhill: A Radical Approach to Child Rearing, who is known for saying things like, “A good teacher does not draw out; he gives out, and what he gives out is love. And by love I mean approval, or if you like, friendliness, good nature. The good teacher not only understands the child: He approves of the child.”

Honestly, it’s misleading to say Approaching the Elephant is about the free school. It’s not really. Her film is not about making a statement on whether or not these schools work. It’s not even the film’s aim to teach you about the history of free schools. Instead, Wilder invites the viewer to observe Teddy McArdle in its inaugural year with her fly-on-the-wall approach to the filming. Quickly, Wilder’s camera locks in on three personalities: the supremely patient and impassioned founder Alex Fost, a bad-boy student with unruly long locks called Jio, and fellow student Lucy who is both insatiably curious and strikingly articulate for a child her age.

At the free schools, there are no pre-established rules. Instead, students and teachers create them together. If someone wants to propose a rule, they call a meeting where everyone argues their perspective. It comes down to a vote if the proposal is to become a rule. Much of the film revolves around these meetings, and it’s interesting to see how the students progress throughout the year in this setting. Lucy often calls meetings, whereas Jio is often the reason for the meeting. A teacher’s vote holds the same weight as a student, but there are more students than teachers. As a result, we often see some absurdly funny meetings. One of the funniest moments is when Lucy calls a meeting on Fost, saying that it’s unfair of him to not allow students to jump from great heights onto a mattress below. Her young mind believes it’s a human right to have such an experience, and he patiently explains to her—without even a hint of condescension—on why it’s very dangerous to do such things. Jio and Fost have a far different relationship, as Jio’s bad behaviors often disrupt the other students’ ability to learn. It’s best not to go into this relationship much and leave it to the film, but it is perhaps the most compelling part of the documentary.

Approaching the Elephant is an expertly crafted feature with smart editing from Robert Greene (director of Actress and current festival hit Kate Plays Christine). Wilder was there with her camera from day one of the school’s opening, and it pays off. Her film paints sensitive portraits of the people at Teddy McArdle. The children seem completely unaware of her camera. True to the school’s spirit, Wilder smartly resists the urge to make a statement on this type of schooling. She doesn’t want to force a lesson on you but rather craft a film that allows you to do your own learning. At one point Fost makes a comment about how you won’t really be able to tell if the school is working for another 20 years. Approaching the Elephant features such compelling personalities that I found myself wishing Wilder continue the project in a series of films like Michael Apted’s Up series. I’d gladly follow the stories of Fost and the students for another 20 years, and then some. | Cait Lore

Approaching the Elephant shows at the Webster Film Series at 7:30 p.m. on Sunday, April 3. Director Amanda Wilder will be in attendance. For more information, visit the Film Series’ website, or call (314) 968-7487.

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