Approaching the Elephant
Director: Amanda Rose Wilder
Year of Release: 2015
Running Time: 1 hour 29 minutes
Amanda Rose Wilder's immersive, non-linear documentary examining the 2007-2008 year at the Teddy McArdle Free School in New Jersey is a brilliant distillation of the difficulties of teaching young children the finer points of democracy. Using a claustrophobic shooting style (mostly closeups and roving handheld camera) and burnished with black-and-white photography, Wilder integrates herself with the students and faculty without ever making statements on the actions being presented. In a way, Approaching the Elephant gives us a fly-on-the-wall approach that directly links to the way the school is run; classes are mandatory, democratic meetings are called for infractions, and students are encouraged to develop their own interests. Certain kids are focused on more than others; a rambunctious troublemaker named Jiovanni and the more reasonable, kind-hearted Lucy, for example, but Wilder's film never becomes didactic. Instead, it shows how such a scenario, propelled by noble ideals, is intrinsically fraught with contradictions. The results are troubling, illuminating, and often, queasily humorous.