Kids like to swear. That’s probably because they’re frequently told not to, but the appeal hardly dissipates once they’ve been placed in a more relaxed environment. They just get more excited about it.
This is only one of the smaller revelations of Amanda Rose Wilder’s extraordinary Approaching the Elephant, but it’s illustrative. At the Terry McArdle Free School rules are not broken so much as remade, by a collaboration of teachers, parents and students. Everyone participates in teaching, learning, rule-making and discipline. Moreover, in this film, they’re doing it all for the first time. It’s a chronicle of the school’s very first year, the beginning of this grand experiment. And, as all that swearing shows, it’s a beautifully bumpy ride.
It’s also something of a revelation in black and white, digital direct cinema. This isn’t the sort of politically minded essay film that we might expect, given the current crisis in the American education system. Wilder’s style has more in common with Frederick Wiseman’s High School than it does Waiting for Superman. Its raw materials are conversation and expression rather than expert testimony or facts and figures. Wilder takes a great deal from the old playbook of Robert Drew and his associates, capturing a sequence of events with an eye on both local detail and the importance of character. Unlike Wiseman’s epic landscapes of entire institutions, she uses observational methods to shepherd the audience through a chronicle of increasingly unique events.
It seems as if there’s never a quiet moment at the Terry McArdle Free School. Wilder is an expert at finding and highlighting moments that capture the mood, without lingering too long. The impromptu way in which students abruptly leave one class for another is captured in two small scenes, packaged neatly and quickly into the larger patterns of the film. There’s swearing and destruction of property, but also moments of real learning and joy. A talent show is particularly memorable, in which teachers impersonate students and students sing songs and perform gymnastics.
Within the wider landscape of the school, however, there are a few central characters. The teacher in charge is named Alex. He can get a little testy but is also completely devoted to this project. Lucy is closer to the ideal free school student, in that she’s quite clearly had plenty of success learning and internalizing the way things work. Jiovanni, on the other hand, is a troublemaker. He’s violent with the furniture, with other students and with Alex. In this environment, however, Alex can’t simply punish a kid for misbehaving, no questions asked. Instead, there is an extended and very mature process of accusations and juries of their peers.
Lucy at one point accuses Alex of a breach of the school rules, and the ensuing discussion is something of a revelation. While obviously still a child, struggling with the requirements of maturity and language inherent in any debate on equal footing, she has also clearly grasped onto the importance of fairness and responsibility in this world. Alex, on the other hand, is frequently faced with the difficulty of meeting a child in official conversation that treats them as equals.
As the film moves forward, it becomes more and more apparent that this is affecting how the teacher sees himself. It becomes acute not with Lucy but Jiovanni. Alex’s face, wracked with frustration and built-up resentment is among the film’s most powerful images. The stony visage of Jiovanni, often distant rather than staunch, is another. In the intense sequences of decision and discussion, the line between adult and child begins to blur in the same way as the line between teacher and student. It’s evident in expression, in tones of voice and in the overall mood of the school. These scenes begin to take on the sense of urgency and importance of the tenser moments in Drew’s The Chair or D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus’s The War Room.
Yet unlike those films, Approaching the Elephant isn’t about any earth-shattering world-historical events. It’s a little, intrepid movie about an experiment. The air is dripping with possibility, as if at any moment something might catch fire. This intangible fragility makes it unique. No one is entirely sure whether or not the school will succeed, though there is plenty of optimism voiced by everyone involved. As to the school’s issues, some the proposed solutions are more intriguing than compelling. Facing the Jiovanni situation, one parent asserts that the biggest problem will be the inevitable bullies that will find their way to Terry McArdle after they’ve been expelled from other places. This sounds reasonable, but after spending an hour in the walls of the school it certainly doesn’t feel emotionally or ethically uncomplicated.
The most intriguing assertion, which ricochets throughout, is the notion that a free school can never really work until the kids have truly internalized this method. That takes years. To an audience with no experience of a free school that probably sounds ridiculous. But time spent in this free space changes the experience, elucidates anarchy into a complex anarchist ideal. Like many grand experiments, the desired result seems entirely possible but equally risky, floating in the balance between ambition and weakness.