Review: Approaching the Elephant

It is a new kind of indirect cinema that one must experience instead of watch.

The camera looks up at children as they scale the limbs of a tree. Then the camera sidesteps to catch other kids on the ground walking through a row of hedges as if the landscaping doesn’t even exist. You feel the camera nervously swerve, trying to capture what’s on the other side of the lens but also, as seemingly the only adult present, try to take in the sudden range of conflicting responsibilities. This is the inaugural year of the Teddy McArdle Free School, a progressive establishment sprawling out of a church basement in northern New Jersey.

The free school model is based on the belief that schools should fit the students, not the other way around, an attitude that began early in the 20th Century and resurged in the freedom movements of the 60s. They have little structure, rules are voted on in a democratic process, classes are optional, areas are set up to encourage exploration- it’s like Montessori on steroids: these kids have saws! You slowly see the children create an understanding of self, however anarchic the steps are to get there. Ids and egos bounce off the walls of the confined space like tennis balls. Like the students, filmmaker Amanda Rose Wilder immerses herself in this unsteady environment, her observational approach favoring poeticism to pure representation. She fully embraces the unreliability of the documentary form to create a unique, fluid, personal, emotional experience.

The look of the film is incredible, a high contrast digital black and white (DVX100?) that beautifully imitates the harshness of Super 8. The closely cropped shots fill the screen with an engaging intimacy. The imagery is punctuated with shrill screams, in situ music and rare moments of quiet. The whole film mirrors the textured rawness of childhood. But it is the editing that places all of these lines into poetic form. A composed tension is perfectly induced through montage as sounds and visions float across scenes, cuts and movements take on an otherworldly sense of time and space. The film highlights the ability of digital craft to make art, a smooth manipulation of the medium, a lyrical editing that amplifies the sensory experience.

Approaching the Elephant is a mini existential crisis that is shared between the compelling students, the wide-eyed teachers, the filmmaker and the audience. It reminds that wonder, exploration, and expression are vital parts of being, no matter the age. With this debut feature, Amanda Rose Wilder has internalized her subject resulting in something timeless and progressive, personal yet empathetic. It is a new kind of indirect cinema that one must experience instead of watch. 

Approaching the Elephant screens Feb 20-26th as part of the IFP Screen Forward series held at the Made In NY Media Center, 30 John St. in DUMBO. Q&As with the director & guests follow each screening, tickets only available online. For more info visit the film’s website.



Donna K. lives in the Midwest and on the internet. Mostly she writes about her interest in the offline world.