Jiovanni in "Approaching the Elephant"

As with everything else at Teddy McArdle Free School, there was a vote on whether to let filmmaker Amanda Rose Wilder in. Yet contrary to what you might think, unless you’re actually familiar with the free school movement, this vote wasn’t going to be decided by the administrators of the school or even necessarily the parents, but rather the small class of prepubescent students that were tucked into the basement of the United Methodist Church in New Jersey, who are empowered by the democratic rule making process of free schooling to dictate the terms of their own education.

“I got up the courage to ask if I could come on the first day,” recalls Wilder after first meeting the school’s founder Alex Khost at an education conference. “[Alex] went back to the people involved and [asked] if I could come or not and they agreed. I showed on my first day and then I stayed.”

Wilder ultimately stayed for two years, though only the first is actually shown in “Approaching the Elephant,” an exceptional documentary that’s as wild and exuberant as its young subjects. Charting the very first year of the school in operation, the filmmaker steps into a situation that is an experiment for all involved. But though her untethered camera explores the school’s halls with the same vigor as the children, it ultimately latches onto three specific subjects in the mischievous Jiovanni, who frequently tests the limits of the school’s communally-created rules, the more authoritative Lucy, who comes to embrace having such power, and the well-intentioned Khost, who finds himself in over his head when the natural youthful impulses of his pupils collide head-on with his educational ideals.

On a superficial level, Wilder is able to chronicle an unbelievable inmates-running-the-asylum-type scenario unfolding in real time as the kids are left to their own devices in deciding what they should and shouldn’t be doing on an average school day — although at one point Khost has to acknowledge there are some rules in place such as “no juggling knives,” though he’s also quick to remind that “You don’t have to take math.”

However, “Approaching the Elephant” gets at something far more resonant in presenting how a group of young minds largely unpolluted by the adult world go about making decisions, initiating the kinds of sophisticated conversations about regulation and legislation that one might wish existed at the state and federal congressional level. ‎Just as Khost’s hope as an educator is to let the children find their own way, Wilder allows audiences to come to their own conclusions about his methodology, while in the process creating an engaging and noncondescending portrait of young boys and girls captured in crisp black and white. Shortly before the film’s release in New York, Wilder spoke about the film’s seven-year journey to the screen, how her own educational background and poetry helped shape her feature debut and where her subjects are now.

Lucy in "Approaching the Elephant"How did this come about?

It started in about 2007. My dad’s an elementary school teacher and he always was progressively minded, but taught in conventional schools. He took me to visit Summerhill in England, which is the longest running and the most famous free school, so that was my first experience with free schools and it was a very memorable few days and I didn’t really get it at the time.

I don’t really think I was prepared because I had gone to conventional schools my whole life and I didn’t really understand how being able to ride horses all day was school. I was a very eager to please, follow-the-rules daughter-of-a-teacher kid. I went to Marlboro College in Vermont, which was after having a bad experience at boarding school in Connecticut where I actually went of my own volition because I’d gone to a poetry camp there in the summer and I thought I would like it. But I didn’t really understand prep culture. After taking a year off, I went to Marlboro, which was much better fit for me. You design a plan and concentration and that’s your thesis, which you spend the last two years on and you work with a couple professors. That’s really where I came to understand the beauty of self-directive learning. I would have to go every day to these tutorials with my one-on-one professor and say what I wanted to talk about that day, so it was all up to me.

The summer after I graduated in 2007, my film professor and mentor, the filmmaker Jay Craven, asked me if I wanted to make a film with him about progressive education. I was into poetry before I found documentary and Jay was the one who really encouraged the idea of poetic cinema and helping me study and explore that. He raised a little money for me to go to this alternative education conference and I did all these interviews with all these different people including the head of Summerhill now, [original founder] A.S. Neill’s daughter Brittney, home-schooled kids, and then Alex [Khost], who was about to start Teddy McArdle [Free School] that fall, in a couple months. I just grabbed him off the street, did an hour-long interview with him, and was just very charmed by his excitement about what he was going to do at the school.

Did the idea of a free school contribute to the way you wanted to capture it? There is this free-flowing nature to the way you shoot it.

They naturally complemented each other. Before I started shooting in college, I had gotten really obsessed with the Maysles [Brothers] and direct cinema. I was happy to find early on at Teddy McArdle that there was this very open feeling like there wasn’t any red tape for me to go through to film whatever I wanted and that the nature of the school [where] kids are really allowed to do what they want and have a say really was really going to allow me to capture kids as they are and more of their personalities than I think you usually are able to capture in movies I’ve seen about kids in school settings. I realized that the movie is more like movies like “Streetwise,” or “Pixote,” the Brazilian film or “Children Underground.” Those are actually three movies about kids on the streets, which is interesting to think about because that’s where we see the kids being most free, or the most themselves, and the restlessness of childhood.

One of the most striking things about the film, due to that approach, is being able to witness the children having these extremely sophisticated conversations about what they’d like to see happen at school, occasionally more so than the adults. Was that somewhat surreal to see?

Yeah, that was inspiring in a way. I feel like you see the kids really being articulate and being very expressive in a way that you just don’t normally see, and some people I think don’t even really realize about kids, but given a say I feel like kids can really be incredibly eloquent, and know what to do in difficult circumstances.

One of my favorite scenes was [with] Lucy and Alex when she calls a meeting on Alex for not letting her do something, and saying he made the decision himself and didn’t go through the democratic process. You really see this different framework for thinking about adults and children, [with] each of them stating their points and really talking to each other as equals and respecting each other. It can be incredible mind-bending. Of course, I have my own opinions, but we really tried to make the movie in a way that it opens a window onto a world that maybe most people aren’t accustomed to and allows them to come to their own conclusions about what they see. It’s not a movie where I came in with a lot of judgement, then sought out to show those judgments.

But it’s been interesting [that] some interviewers have asked me questions where I feel like they’ve already made a lot judgement, and they assume that I see the same things in the movie that they do. Like, “Wow, it was really horrible there. How was it to film there?” I’m like, “Well I didn’t necessarily think it was horrible.” And it’s been interesting because people really do have such a huge range of impressions of what they see. Some people come out of the same screening and will come up to me, grab my arm and [say], “I was appalled.” Another person will come up to me later and be like, “Wow, that was so inspiring.” It’s not really representative of all free schools at all. This was a free school during it’s first year and it’s a very particular story and if I was to film a free school like Summerhill, which has been around almost a hundred years, it would be a very different picture. But this is about Alex, Jiovanni and Lucy, and the context is a free school.

This may be a naive observation on my part, but though you do show a board full of classes suggested by the kids and the adults, a lot of the film seems to revolve around the wood shop class. Was that actually a focus for the educators or was that simply where the action was?

It’s hard for me to say, but I have had a lot of people mention the board, that you don’t see as much of those classes in the film. I might have just not been there on those days, because I didn’t really have a lot to choose from in terms of classes in my footage. Some of those classes that were put on that board didn’t happen and a lot of the learning that year [happened] outside of the more traditional classes that took place. But the woodshop angle I was drawn to because it felt like a place that brought out a lot of the characters’ personalities. Like the first scene with Jiovanni, where he’s helping Lucy but also being somewhat scary at the same time, it was very visceral, which I really liked, and it was a place where everyone at school was interested in at some point. I also really liked the whole narrative arc of the building and then destroying of the clubhouse.

I’m certainly glad you limited the focus to the school, but did you consider coming home with the kids? Since the school is an experiment, I couldn’t help but wonder at times who their parents were.

It really is confined to the school space, and I didn’t really shoot anything at home with anyone besides one morning with Lucy, which you see a couple shots from in the beginning of the movie. There was just so much going on at the school. We actually did have footage of some of the kids such as Jiovanni talking about what was going on at home, some of which was kind of upsetting to hear, but that was a choice to not include. We didn’t want to do that with those snapshot details because as my editor Robert [Greene] said at some point, you know Jiovanni by [how he wears] his hair, and you wouldn’t really want to explain away Jio’s issues knowing [only] one thing about him. I feel like if you don’t know anything about what he’s going through in his personal life than we actually have an opportunity to be more empathetic.

Also, I feel it puts you in the position of a teacher at any school who may know a little bit about what’s going on at home, but really doesn’t have any control over that. If you just met the kid at the door, then you have to deal with them there. It is interesting because they did definitely come from very different backgrounds and‎ I could have chosen go home with Jiovanni and Lucy and Alex like 15 times each. That could have been good too, but I didn’t, so the little snippets I had of those outside stories I just didn’t feel were appropriate to include because I didn’t have the full story.

You mentioned your initial interest in poetry earlier. Did you find that interest lent itself naturally to documentary filmmaking?

I was always into poetry until I got to college, but I’d write poems and be dissatisfied with them. Then I took a Documentary 101 class and I remember at the first film festival that they had at the college, everyone came and all the people there would come up to me afterwards and say, “I really liked your movie.” No one was coming up to me talking about my poetry, so I think I realized the power of cinema and I took to the idea of having a larger audience and really being able to do similar things in cinema that I was trying to do in poetry.

The poets I always loved were William Carlos Williams and Marianne Moore and people who really did write about real life, but through a subjective, artful eye. William Carlos Williams was a neighborhood doctor, and he’d go into people’s homes and then write about that, so to me William Carlos Williams and the Maysles had a lot in common. I immediately took to the idea of being able to have an intuitive, poetic eye behind a camera, and using it handheld, so when you’re watching the film, you’re almost watching my thought process or you really feel like you’re in my body as I go through the school, I hope. I see a link between poetry and my true observational cinema and experimental films where I feel like you can kind of reach this level [where] this is almost too surreal to be true or a level of surprise, if you’re intuitive with your camerawork, in experimental films as you can with poetry.

Have you actually kept up with anyone from the school?

Yeah, definitely. I’ve kept in close contact with Jiovanni, Lucy, and Alex. Jiovanni lives in Florida and I saw him about a year ago when he came up for the screening for the people in the film, which we had at Lucy’s house. It’s funny because they’re all big teenagers now, so there was a lot of laughing during the screening [since] they see themselves as little kids then and I think it was a sort of therapeutic, reflective experience for Jiovanni in some ways. Lucy still lives in New Jersey and she’s actually going to public school now of her own volition. She had mostly unschooled at home, which is like free schooling at home, but she didn’t have as many friends who were unschooling, so she decided to go to public school.

Alex and I are actually together now. We live in Brooklyn and he’s on to other projects. He’s trying to start an adventure playground in Brooklyn, which is like a free school playground. You plan and design and open space for preschool kids and give them what’s called loose parts materials and the idea is not to have a pre-determined plastic, enclosed space for kids, but to let them make their own fun, which is interesting because in places like New York City, kids just have less and less open space like that these days, so the idea is you guys need to start designing that kind of thing.

I just hope he’s sane and happy after seeing the kind of year he had starting this school.

Ye‎ah, the movie really shows a lot of change and transitions for everyone. Obviously, you’re watching kids, so you’re watching the young people go through a lot of learning. But the whole notion of a free school was very new to almost everyone involved, so the whole endeavor was somewhat in its infant stage and I think Alex learned a lot about himself and how to be around kids, and what he thinks about education during that year — adults learn as much from kids as kids do from adults. And I do feel it was like watching yourself during your middle school years or maybe a period when you were really going through a lot of change which is positive, but also maybe sometimes difficult to watch.

I’m amazed that the people were gracious enough and open enough to let me film that. We all struggle and I think it’s really important for us to see people struggling and things not being perfect. I’d rather film people who are trying something new and whose faces are alive than someone who has been doing the same thing for 35 years, in the same way and look dead or is staring at their computer. That’s not something I want to film. I know [“Approaching the Elephant”] includes a lot of ups and downs and I think it can be difficult for the viewer or for the people in it, but I think that’s important. Movies can be therapeutic in a way and remind us that we’re all human.

“Approaching the Elephant” opens in New York at the Made in New York Media Center on February 20th. A full list of screenings and dates can be found here.