In the film “Approaching the Elephant,” filmmaker Amanda Rose Wilder follows the students and teachers of a so-called free school in New Jersey where the students make the rules. Wilder, who mans the camera for the film, is a fly on the wall as the audience is taken through the school’s inaugural year and all of the problems that arise.
Some students struggle with handling the school’s democratic structure while others thrive. The film culminates in some serious decisions regarding the future of the school, its tireless director and its most troublesome student.
I spoke with Wilder about some of the choices she made with the film and what she hopes the audience takes away from the film.
Why present the film in black and white?
That was something we decided recently. It was an idea that I'd always bounced around. I think it looks really beautiful in black and white. In color, it sort of looks like a movie from seven years ago. In black and white, it could be any time – like 30 years ago. But mostly, [we did it in black and white] because it gave it a timeless feel.
What did you want to get out of shooting this film once you decided that you were going to stick around and document as much as you could?
When I got there the first day, I could already tell that there were a couple of amazing characters that I was really intrigued by. One was Alex, the head of the school. Two was Giovanni, who is the kid who in a way was the leader of the kids. He sort of inspires people to build things. He's a very passionate, self-directed person. But in other ways, he had some issues he's dealing with. And then Lucy is the third main character. She's just amazing to watch. Everything she says in funny or interesting.
Also, beyond just having what I felt were some great main characters, was the fact that the school was in the process becoming what it wanted to be. This was a story from the first day of something. That "figuring it out as you go along" [story line] was really intriguing to me. None of them had gone to a free school before. The kids were coming from all different places and most of the adults hadn't worked in a free school. I just had to shoot that process of "how do you do this?"
Is there a reason why Giovanni's story arc is the focus of the film?
To me, it was just the story that was obvious because it really was the story of the year. From day one, I could tell he would be a test to the community. I think it does bring up whether this kind of school can work or what kind of school can work for someone who has real behavioral problems.
What do you hope the audience takes away from your film?
For one, I'm just trying to tell an amazing story. I love filmmakers, like John Cassavetes, and the way they show people being real in ways we don't usually see in film. I kind of hope my movie is like that.
And most importantly, we see kids being really complicated, sometimes scary, sometimes inspiring individuals. My film isn't an advocacy piece for free schools but I do believe kids are fascinating human beings that maybe should be paid attention to a little bit more. There aren’t many movies that really show kids in a way that my movie does.
And then the general themes of freedom, democracy and how we work together.