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The clip above depicts chaos or democracy (or both), depending how you look at it. It's from Amanda Rose Wilder's documentary Approaching the Elephant (opening today in New York), which documents the first year of the Teddy McArdle Free School in Little Falls, NJ. Shot over the course of the the 2007-2008 school year (Teddy McArdle has since closed), Elephant captures the freedom and tumult that results from allowing young students (here they range in age from 6-11) to govern themselves, in this case, giving them equal say with their adult supervisors in terms of curriculum and rules. "Free schooling" (sometimes referred to as "democratic education") is a concept that has existed for over a century and the execution of its ideals varies from school to school. Approaching the Elephant is a snapshot of one, filmed in the observational style akin to Wilder's influences like Frederick Wiseman, the Maysles, and the Dardennes.
And like the work of those documentarians, Approaching the Elephant is about much more than it initially seems. "Early on, I realized this model was going to let me film kids in a way that you don't usually see them," Wilder told me by phone last week. We talked about her documentary, her time in the school, and her relationship with her subjects, including Alex Khos, who ran Teddy McArdle and has since become her boyfriend. An edited and condensed transcript of our discussion is below.
Gawker: I wondered if the proportion of chaos to reasoned conversations/democratic process in the final cut of the film was an actual reflection of what you shot. I can understand why you'd highlight the chaos more, since it's so entertaining.
Amanda Rose Wilder: I think we got it right. It's really hard. What was reality? There was no one reality. I was there for the first two weeks straight and then I'd say two week of every following month, so I missed things. I think what's important is for you to tell your story and to tell it well. I'm sure there's an eight-hour version of the movie where you see [student] Jiovanni trying to learn how to unicycle for hours. That would be an amazing thing to have in the movie, but you also have to deal with keeping the narrative moving. [Editor Robert Greene] and I thought the movie should be like that: it should just propel forward. So we did choose that kind of a film and not the Tarkovsky pace.
Did you worry about how your presence and the camera might work as a variable in an already experimental process?
I was there from the first day of the school existing, and I felt like because of that, the kids and everyone else accepted me as part of the process or experiment of this school. I was a one-woman band. I didn't have a sound person, it was just me. I'm a pretty unassuming person who's not really a big presence, unless I want to be. That's kind of my way of filming. I know people don't like the term "fly on the wall," but it was somewhat that, I would say. And just making people feel comfortable. I was part of the community in some way, but not so much that people would be asking me things all the time. It was sort of a delicate balance between being friends and being more distant.
I feel like kids in general are less self-conscious. This was eight years ago, so it would be interesting to see if that's changed since kids are so media-savvy now. I can't really say. I'm sure the camera had some effect, but from what I've heard from Alex and other people, people would just forget I was there. I've thought about how observational filmmaking is a little bit like surfing in a way. You're out in the water and you're sort of alert but you're also sort of meditating, and then you see a wave and maybe you decide to pick it up, which is shooting a conversation. Maybe it's the best wave you've ever had, and that's why you surf. Maybe it's not, and you paddle back and you wait again.
This documentary, like those of Wiseman, doesn't feature your subjects being interviewed directly to camera. Why?
I just always find that more exciting things happen when you're shooting real life than when you're filming someone talking about it in retrospect. I know that can be interesting as well. I shot some interviews early on, mostly with the kids, and it just was never as interesting as the shooting in the moment. Maybe it was because they were younger and it was hard for them to reflect. Kids are very much in the moment.
Yeah, I think that's an interesting way to put it. I'd call it respectful filmmaking. I never wanted to make a film that was a smear of free schools and I never wanted to make propaganda, which I feel like many documentaries about education are: They're pushing some agenda. People are really used to that. To me, it's more about being respectful to the people that are in the film, and that means a lot of balancing: we had enough scenes of [the people I was focusing on] that showed the multiple facets of their personalities. It's great to be respectful to your viewers, as well, so that you're not telling them what to think. You're providing them with an experience that they're able to grapple with themselves. That's experiential learning.
Have you stayed in touch with any of the kids?
Yeah, I have. Jiovanni came to a film festival, and we're all Facebook friends. We had a screening of the film right before it premiered at True/False at [student] Lucy's house in New Jersey. A lot of the other kids were there. There was a lot of laughing. I think they see themselves as little kids in the film because they're all big teenagers. The movie doesn't really go into their home situations and that was a conscious choice in editing. We did have Jiovanni talking about things at home, and we chose not to use that because we didn't really have the full story. I think he's good. He still has difficulties in his life, but he's still the same smart, intense person. He works at the Indie 500 racetrack serving food. Lucy did unschooling for a few years and then, on her own volition, last year decided to go to the public high school. I think mostly because she had run out of friends in the area that were unschooling as well. I haven't talked to her much about it, but it seems like she's liking it. Alex [the teacher] and I are actually together now.
Was there something blossoming as you were filming?
No, not more than just falling in love with the people you're interested in filming, which was also true of Lucy and Jiovanni. Alex was married at the time and he had another son on the way. There was only documentary-subject fascination until he separated from his wife and then they both moved separately to Brooklyn, so that their sons could go to Brooklyn preschool. And then, my best friend was moving from California to New York and needed a roommate. I put it on Facebook, and they moved in together. I thought that was a little strange, but I let it happen and then I would hang out at their apartment and we got to know each other in a different way.
It's been interesting. I don't know if I'd recommend dating your documentary subject. Dealing with the film and then going to almost every single film festival from Florida to Copenhagen to Italy together and dealing with the reactions together, as a couple now, has all been really difficult and somewhat interesting. Alex does have some issues with the film and he feels like in some ways it doesn't represent the story that he has of the year. As I see it, it is my story. We all have our own stories. I think it's difficult for him because in a way it's like seeing someone in middle school. It was a huge year of change for him, as well as the kids. People say teachers learn as much from teaching as kids do. Oh, and this is another strange part of the story: My dad was Alex's teacher in seventh grade. We just found out about it two years ago. We have this long history together in education.
Does this movie document the school's final days?
No, there was another year. Alex left. He found out he was having another kid, and that ended up being too much. Jiovanni was gone. It was a smaller group and I shot about 40 hours of the second year but the energy was so different. That story was over. Things really did get better, though. They got rid of the judicial committee process and just had mediation instead, which I think worked better. Then they couldn't get enough kids to pay the rent. At the end of that year, they just kind of became an unschooling group together. But a few years ago, a bunch of the people who were involved, besides Alex, started a new school in Maplewood, New Jersey, called South Mountain Co-Op. They're doing really well now. They have 30 kids and a great space. So it continues. I think a lot of why they're succeeding has to do with the fact that they have four full-time adults invested in the school and then they also have great parents' support. It highlights how Alex did not have that—it was just him floating the boat. You could never do something like that on your own.
In your estimation, having interacted with the kids after the filming, were they marked in any noticeable way by this experience?
I wasn't around most of them right after, but most of them have come to a screening here and there. All I can say, I guess, is that for everyone it was a very memorable year, one that they're never going to forget. From what I gather, everyone has good memories of the year—that it was a lot of fun, sometimes maybe stressful but filled with a lot of meaning for them. I think Jiovanni's a little embarrassed by what happens in the movie, but he's smart. He says funny things about it like, "It would be less entertaining without me." Last time I talked to him, he said, "I don't understand why I acted that way." I told him, "There were so many things going on in your life that were maybe working against you." The school wasn't really set up and I think for someone who was dealing with issues like him, he needed to have a lot more to do and role models. I think it continues for everyone to be a point of reflection.