'Approaching the Elephant': Film Review

Approaching the Elephant Still - H 2015
Courtesy of Kingdom County Productions

Approaching the Elephant Still - H 2015

A successful immersion in a questionable setting

The kids run the asylum in this experimental school

In the crowded marketplace of ideas about ways of educating children, the "Free School" system featured in Approaching the Elephant seem certain to remain on the far fringe: Envisioned by Spanish Anarchists just over a century ago, it empowers students to collectively make decisions about how to spend time and govern themselves. As Amanda Rose Wilder observes, spending a year at a fledgling free school in New Jersey, this can mean something like bedlam. The debut doc, focused not just on the experiment's trying first year but on the ideals of those behind it, will be of interest to many in the educational community. For viewers on the fence about having children, it might also serve as a potent contraceptive.

The verité-style, black-and-white film never introduces its subjects, but we're spending time with Alex Khost, a young man whose own frustrating childhood experiences inspired a years-long dream to start this school. A few like-minded adults have joined him, and we observe the first days of their interaction with a small group of kids. We'll make the rules up as we go, they say, in group meetings where students and elders have equal votes.

"If you don't want to do math right now," for example, "you don't have to." And in fact we see very, very little of anything most people would view as academic activity. Kids run around, squabble, experiment clumsily with hand tools, ride bikes. The grown-ups understand that free schools don't start smoothly: A "gangster phase" is to be expected after children learn they're no longer expected to conform to usual standards. "We probably won't know for twenty years," if it's working, one says, since an effective free school requires the presence of older kids who understand the principles and can help nurture the self-governing ethic.

And boy, are there growing pains. In between quieter scenes that let some of the students' personalities come into focus are chaotic episodes — like one in which nonstop background howling and some student-on-teacher physical violence is the backdrop for a boy scrawling "FUCKKKK!" on a chalkboard. One expects the camera to pull back and reveal three zombie children feasting on an adult's entrails.

Eventually we see how faculty deals with misbehavior that simply can't be contained. A dramatic scene near the end of the first school year pits an at-wits-end Khost, so frazzled he all but shouts at a bystander, against a long-haired boy who loves the school but insists on terrorizing those around him. Even anarchists have to draw the line somewhere, and Approaching the Elephant shows how difficult that can be.

Production companies: Wilder Films, Kingdom County

Director-Director of photography: Amanda Rose Wilder

Producers: Jay Craven, Robert Greene, Amanda Rose Wilder

Editor: Robert Greene


No rating, 89 minutes