Getting Real With The Director of Must-See Documentary ‘Approaching the Elephant’

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Imagine the scene of a group of precocious schoolchildren having a democratic meeting about who has the right to a piece of wood—each as expressive in their righteous anger or inquisitive silence, while patiently awaiting the final verdict—and you’ll begin to understand the allure of Approaching the Elephant, one of the finest American documentaries in recent memory. The feature debut by Amanda Rose Wilder depicts the inaugural year of the Teddy McArdle Free School in New Jersey, where director Alex Khost and his colleagues teach art history, woodworking, a variety of instruments, and whatever else the kids decide they want to do that day. It’s a bustling, genuinely curious portrait of communal education that seems incredibly generous, exciting, and even a little scary all at once.

Elephant is reminiscent of the films of Frederick Wiseman and the Maysles Brothers, which observe American institutions with patience and a deep faith in their subjects that feels wholly unburdened by commercial concerns. We’re never told how to watch these incredibly engaging children, much as they occasionally develop Brat Pack-esque roles and behaviors. A vague love story develops between fiery blonde Lucy and surly Jiovanni, who roughly function as protagonists under Wilder’s solitary roving camera—until Khost, the viewer and their fellow classmates are forced to accept that not all children thrive under these circumstances.

Shot nearly eight years ago, converted to black-and-white and pieced together by reliably efficient editor Robert Greene (Actress, Listen Up Philip), the film finally opens today for a weeklong run at the IFP Media Center in DUMBO. I had the pleasure of speaking with Ms. Wilder about the origins and inspiration behind the film, and how the subjects responded to it many years later.

How did you first conceive or become involved with this project?

My dad is an elementary school teacher and was always interested in more progressive, unconventional models. He took me once to visit Summerhill, which is the longest-running and most famous free school in the UK. That was my first interaction with free schools, and it was a memorable experience—but he wanted to know if I wanted to enroll there, and it was way out over the ocean. I didn’t really get it at the time, that school could be riding horses all day.

Then he moved with my stepmom to Missouri, and I went on my own volition to a prep school in Connecticut. I had a bad experience in boarding school and didn’t really understand what prep culture was. Ultimately, I think bad experiences are good for you, but I kind of went the opposite way in college. I went to Marlboro in Vermont, which is more progressive—you design the last two years of your education and plan a concentration, which is more like a graduate program than a B.A. That’s where I switched over from poetry to documentary, and my thesis was on “the documentary poem”.

That’s when I became obsessed with the Maysles brothers, and the idea of observational filmmaking as this art, or poetry. And then my film professor, Jay Craven, a filmmaker who makes films about regional Vermont stories, asked if I wanted to make a movie with him exploring progressive education in some way. He raised some money for that and then asked if I wanted to go to this alternative education conference called Aero, and so after I graduated I went there and did all these interviews, and one of those people that I just met on the street was Alex [Khost], who was just about to start Teddy McArdle. It was going to be 20 minutes from where my mom was living, and I was sort of in transition, so I decided to shack up with my mom and basically film there the whole year. I shot about 178 hours the first year, and then 40 or 50 hours the year afterward.

Was your aesthetic for this film inspired by any particular films or filmmakers?

The Maysles were my first real film influence. When I saw Gimme Shelter for the first time, I watched it straight through again a second time, and just recognized something in it that I thought—that’s the kind of film I want to to make. I guess to me, direct cinema is related in a lot of ways to poetry, in that it’s about so many things—it’s so fun to unpack a film.

Richard Brody wrote a capsule review [in the New Yorker] that sort of criticized the fact that I wasn’t a presence in the film. It had me thinking a lot about being a presence, and obviously there’s a strong tradition in direct cinema of not really being present. People talk to you, and you kind of cut that out. But what I always liked about the Maysles’ films is that the filmmaker is…not in the foreground, but very much present. So much is [about] the eye of the camera and also the editor, which is how it was for this film as well. Robert Greene realized that I’m much more of a shooter, and that I needed someone who complements my talents with other necessary ones.

I was able to shoot a second camera with Albert Maysles and edit that material, to watch his footage and mine side-by-side, which was definitely a learning experience. Sean [Price] Williams, the cinematographer, who was also working with the Maysles at the time—I would go see films with him, and that’s how I originally met Robert, outside of Anthology Film Archives years and years ago.

There was some narrative influence as well. Le Fils by the Dardenne brothers is also very much about woodworking and a man-boy relationship and the idea of a naturalistic narrative, which breaks from the direct cinema form a little bit.

It reminded me a bit of Allan King’s Warrendale, in terms of the proximity you had to these kids, and with caregivers trying to contain the emotions of so many different troubled children all at once.

Yeah, there’s that whole alternative community. And you’re just constantly back and forth in Warrendale, whether their methods are horrible or their methods are working—which I think is a good place to put a viewer in.

During that scene where they hold a meeting to discuss Lucy’s harassment, I noticed how you were able to maneuver around the room to focus on each of the participants, while also getting that great insert of Olivia playing with Alex’s keys. These moments never feel hurried or strained. Was your filmmaking mostly intuitive, or did you have a game plan when dealing with these group sequences?

I think there were a lot of elements of Teddy McArdle that helped make it a consistent place for observational filmmaking—one being that it was really limited to one space. A lot of the movie takes place in maybe three rooms, and there were always a lot of people sitting around talking, so it was very easy to just be behind people. And I was there on the first day of school, so I think that helped. I think being there from the outset really helped people [get used to it], and that it was just me.

I think it was mostly working instinctually. I would get there and I would pick up on a conversation across the room, and I would go over and listen…I was always trying to find scenes, or shots that I felt captured me. Then there were scenes that I knew were going to happen, or there was a little bit more preconceived thinking, and that was one of those scenes. Alex knew that I was interested in filming that scene [once the hearing was called], and he approached me and said, why don’t we do this one now.

Another example is the scene at the end where they decide what to do with Jiovanni ultimately. I guess I sort of gathered in my head who I would want to focus on, and just remind myself not to get too distracted and bounce around a whole lot.

That was one thing I always noticed about Al Maysles was how patient he would be [with his subjects]. The best cinematographers always sort of inspire you. I remember watching this Glauber Rocha movie, where during a sewer scene, there was a shot I really liked where the camera just sort of moved forward into people talking. And in the sewer scene [in Approaching the Elephant] where Lucy’s talking into Olivia’s ear, I just moved in and picked up that shot. I decided to re-enact it in that moment.

I was also curious what the “inappropriate movies” were that Jiovanni was cited for watching at his hearing at the end.

That’s a good question! I can’t actually answer that. I don’t think it was sexual in nature. I think it was more like there was a rule for younger kids, like 5 years old who were more scared by violent things, and he just wasn’t respecting those rules.

Have any of the kids seen the film? It would be fascinating if you did a kind of Chronicle of a Summer-style screening for all of them together, and filming their reactions.

They’re all 16 to 17 years old now, and we had a screening for people in the film about a month before it premiered at True/False last year. Jiovanni flew up from Florida, where I am now, and he stayed with us in Brooklyn a few days ahead of screening the movie at Lucy’s house. That was neat, and I did really want to film at that time, because we had Alex and Jiovanni—who’s taller than Alex now!—and he works at the Indy 500 racetrack. But I did feel like it was important to have some time with him without filming, and to get to know each other better, since in a way I didn’t really get to know him as a person without the camera in hand.

Alex and I talk about what an interesting film it would have been to have made about the last year of our lives together. We’ve done all the Q&As together, in Copenhagen, Italy, elsewhere. I’ve definitely heard all the people’s impressions of the movie, which are so varied.

But most [of the participants] have seen it, and I think everyone likes it, thinks it’s a good or great film. Lucy loves it, I think, though she says she remembers she had more fun, and wished I had included more fun moments.

It looked like she was having fun to me!

She really did seek out attention from the boys, which was fun a lot of the time, and then it crossed the line. She did get sort of mad at the adults for stepping in, which was always confusing.

Jiovanni has said to me that he’s a little embarrassed about how he acted. He wonders why he acted that way. Which is interesting to me, as someone who was on the other side of it. There are obviously so many influences and factors that were going on in his life. I think if we had had a more established free school, with high school age mentors, and things were a little more settled down, he would have been a perfect free school student. I mean, in a lot of ways, he was. Maybe if things in his personal life had been maybe more settled, which I think they are now. But from his perspective, he doesn’t see all of those contexts in his life. I do hope ultimately that the movie provides something for everyone in it to reflect on.

In the end, it’s really my story. I was there on certain days when [Alex] wasn’t, and vice versa, as was everyone else. So it’s not a representational film of free schools, but it’s really just one person’s impression. Which I think is difficult for some people. I think the movie is described sometimes as being about free schools, which is really more of a context…it’s more about going through an experience of school through someone’s eyes.