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“To Film Children in Ways You Don’t Usually See on Film”: Amanda Rose Wilder on Approaching the Elephant

Approaching the Elephant

A gripping, obsessively watchable observation of adolescent behavior set free, first time feature filmmaker Amanda Rose Wilder’s Approaching the Elephant finds its inspiration in the inaugural semester of New Jersey’s Teddy McArdle Free School. Following co-founder Alex Khost, a wide-eyed, determined optimist who dreams of (and gets his chance to) run a not-entirely-anarchistic Free School, the film immerses itself amongst the young children experiencing a drastically unfamiliar educational environment. Neither polemical condemnation nor evidence of its success, Wilder’s camera observes the “experiment’s” highs and lows, as school rules/punishments are democratically voted on by the students.

Lovingly photographed (post-converted to black-and-white) and framed in the 4X3 aspect ratio, Approaching the Elephant opens Friday as part of IFP’s Screen Forward series. I spoke with 2013 Independent Filmmaker Lab alum Wilder about her interest in Free Schools, her favorite scene in the film, and always remaining a watchful observer.

Filmmaker: As a first time feature filmmaker, you possess a striking assuredness in your work, and one that feels well versed in documentary history. Who are some of your cinematic influences?

Wilder: I have quite a few. When it comes to filmmakers, I have to cite the Maysles, the Dardennes, Frederick Wiseman, and John Cassavetes. Other detached snippets from filmmakers, such as a camera motion in a Glauber Rocha film or a short by Jerzy Skolimowski, are also influential. There are some strange things too, like Field of Dreams and Gene Wilder in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. I’m also inspired by poetry and short stories — specifically, for this film, by J.D. Salinger and Roald Dahl.

Filmmaker: The clarity of your images is quite invigorating. What camera did you use? What made you want to shoot in 4X3?

Wilder: The DVX100. It’s still a great camera, and I like how the 4×3 aspect ratio frames people’s bodies. Approaching the Elephant is very involved with people.

Filmmaker: The film opens by noting the history of the Free Schools movement and how they came to popularity. What was your way into the subject? Had you been wanting to observe a Free School in action? Or did The Teddy McArdle Free School specifically pique your interest?

Wilder: I’d visited Summerhill, the longest running free school, when I was ten. My dad is an elementary school teacher and wanted to see what it was like. It was an experience that stuck in my mind. Then I went to an alternative school, Marlboro College, where I switched my focus from poetry to documentary. After I graduated, my film professor, Jay Craven, a Vermont-based filmmaker and producer of Approaching the Elephant, asked if I wanted to make a film with him exploring alternative education. I said yes, and that summer I attended an education conference where I met Alex Khost, who was about to start Teddy McArdle 20 minutes from where my mom lives in New Jersey. Alex was a person I felt I wanted to follow, and I asked him if I could visit on their first day. He went back to those who were involved at the time, and they voted that I could. On the first day I met Lucy and Jiovanni, who were to become the two other main people in the film, and got the sense that this school was going to allow me to film children in ways you don’t usually see on film. I also felt strongly that, beyond any agenda, there was a story.

Filmmaker: The film features numerous seasonal activities that feel rightly commonplace at an elementary school, i.e. a garage sale, a talent show, etc. These events indicate the passing of time, the progression of a full school year. Was it always your intent to observe this “experiment” from the fall through the summer?

Wilder: Yes, while days flow together, there is a clear passage of time. It was less about executing a predetermined intent than letting my developing interests and the unfolding story guide what was filmed. Beginning on the first day of school and ending on the last made sense, story-wise.

Filmmaker: Stationed in the school’s parking lot, you employ numerous establishing shots of the school, a prominent white cross displayed on its roof. It doesn’t seep into the narrative necessarily, but your camera features consistent reminders that this is a religious institution first.

Wilder: Well, there’s humor there, that this radically alternative school was renting space from a church. It’s just one of those details you could never make up, or I couldn’t. I love the cross shots. I wouldn’t want to run too far with it, it’s great as just a visual, but you certainly could – is this a story of heaven or hell, which is which, inside the school or the world surrounding? etc. The reality is that many free schools are housed, at least at first, in churches because of the relatively low cost of rent.

Filmmaker: One particularly striking sequence features the kids in shop class, using sharp saws to cut wood and hammers to strike down nails. Your camera gets dangerously close to the action, and I cringed at the potential danger prevalent throughout. And yet you always refrain from getting involved and imposing onto their world. How quickly did the students grow comfortable with you? Did you have a large crew?

Wilder: Not at all. Recently whenever I’m at screenings, I stay until the end of this first woodworking scene you’re talking about and then leave. Honestly I am a little tickled by audiences’ gasps and exclamations. I know that at that point in the film people are hooked into the story and weighing what’s going on. At no time did I ever feel the kids were being unsafe with the woodworking tools. Mostly they were using coping saws, from which the worst you can get is a minor cut. Organized sports are probably more dangerous!

Maybe it’s something about the closeness and low angle of one of the shots in that scene that scares people. A big issue in the film is safety – a determinant that has so much to do with what children can and cannot do and how they live their lives. My acceptance at Teddy McArdle was immediate. This was a new and small group, and everyone was very open. Two factors that probably helped a lot were, 1) everyone was very engaged with what they were doing, and 2) I was a one-person crew, operating camera and sound.

Filmmaker: You often position your camera down the end of a school hallway, observing from afar the rambunctious, uninterrupted (and often unsupervised) activity of the students roaming about. The camera is the watchful eye that’s never acknowledged. Was this your intent?

Wilder: I think it’s more my personality than intent. I love to observe, to move an audience through a story by how I move the camera and then with the editing. Some filmmakers like to be in the foreground, which is fine, but that’s just a different kind of person than me.

Filmmaker: In many ways, the film is about the silent reactions of others. You continuously cut to the face of a student in the room who is not the focal point of the discussion, the most poignant example of this being one you showcase on the film’s official poster: Jiovanni stares off into the distance as his fellow classmates debate whether or not to expel him.

Wilder: Thanks! That’s a nice observation. The film focuses on three people but relies just as much, if not more so, on the watchful observations of others, on what’s going on with someone’s hands as much as their face, processing as much as talking. As the narrative barrels forward, it sort of momentarily hovers in these moments and you can feel a sort of collective thinking.

Filmmaker: Some have used Lord of the Flies as a reference when describing the film, but the film feels more like a courtroom drama, a 12 Angry Men for first time jurors learning how to mature and respect their fellow man. You watch them closely as they become frustrated with the burden of decision-making and the grayness involved in doing what’s right. What drew you to featuring these key organized meetings?

Wilder: There is a lot of woodworking and meetings in the film because I found the meat of the story there. I’ve never gotten through William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, as I find the tone so disparaging of the kids. I haven’t seen 12 Angry Men. Are there any women in it? You really can’t deny the importance of Lucy in Approaching the Elephant.

Filmmaker: Speaking of Lucy, in one scene, she takes Alex to “court” and is confused when she discovers a loophole in the rules: since Alex is the grownup, he has the final say. Lucy struggles internally with her disappointment here, as she discovers a hidden bifurcation of student and teacher lines.

Wilder: It’s my favorite scene. I love how Alex and Lucy treat each other with complete respect, and yet at the same time firmly stand by their points. When we shot this, he was 32 and Lucy was seven. For people who aren’t used to treating kids as equals, it’s quite a mind warp. Lucy is such a force.

Filmmaker: Your editor and co-producer Robert Greene has been quite vocal about recognizing the performance-based aspects of documentary subjects. With that in mind, Jiovanni emerges from this film as a troubled but fascinating character, a misguided rebel who, by the film’s conclusion, encounters an unfortunate fate at the hands of his peers. Could you speak a little bit about what his presence brings to the film?

Wilder: I felt Jiovanni’s presence the minute I met him. He is one of those magnetic and fascinating figures, up against certain challenges and who you can’t help but hope succeeds. But will he? In this way, in my mind, Jiovanni is very much a young version of Alex. And Lucy exists in a different sphere. A.S. Neill, who started Summerhill said, “A child’s wish to be an adult is a power wish.” Lucy’s approach to this wish, to be as strong as Alex (and Jiovanni) is very different than Jiovanni’s approach, who bucks the system. Lucy tries to go through the system, sometimes prodding it from the inside, to find her power. After her final attempt to will Jiovanni to do the same, she essentially slips out of the narrative, leaving Jiovanni and Alex. I don’t know if I’ll ever stop thinking about these three.

Filmmaker: At one point, co-founder Alex Khost wonders aloud, “There’s definitely a certain amount of, like, is this really working? We probably won’t know for 20 years.”  The film is as much a long-lasting sociological experiment as the school is. Given that you shot the film several years ago, what perspective have you gained from the experience? Was there a Year Two of The Teddy McArdle School?

Wilder: Time has firmed up my belief that people should come to their own conclusions about what they see in the film, and not listen to me or any other people. I think what’s helped me settle into this stance is the range of reactions it has provoked. This is the fable of approaching the elephant, in which six blind men feel different parts of the animal and explain it in very different ways. Teddy, the title character and genius child who comes to a dark end in Salinger’s short story, recounts this fable when someone asks how he would change the education system. He says he’d have all the children vomit up the apple of knowledge and have them approach an elephant and experience and describe it in their own way. I guess I wish the same for people who see the film. And yes, Teddy McArdle did have a second year, but the story really ended on the last day of that first year. I knew this while shooting the last shot of the film, of the dark hallway on the last day of school.

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