In 1921, in Dresden, a teacher named A.S. Neill founded Summerhill, the world’s first “free school” — a radical private academy, fully democratic, in which the students decide what to study and together vote on the rules. Apparently its success has proven influential: Today there are more than 200 free schools worldwide.
Among the newest is the Teddy McArdle Free School in Little Falls, New Jersey. Documentarian Amanda Rose Wilder met Teddy McArdle founder Alex Khost at a conference on alternative education in the summer of 2007, as Khost was gearing up for his school’s inaugural year; Wilder showed up on the first day, camera in hand, and started filming.
Approaching the Elephant is the result of two years embedded in the upstart institution. As a case study of democratic education, the film is duly fascinating: The faults and merits of the free-school movement are elucidated with a steely, journalistic rigor. More surprising is that this candid glimpse plays as exhilarating drama. As Khost’s grip on order weakens, the school shades into mutiny, with one particularly defiant child all but leading a revolt; the fallout is bracing.
Wilder has been compared to Frederick Wiseman, and it’s true that her approach to documentary form bears a similar sophistication. But this material has a rare intensity, and Wilder, a smart and canny director, seizes upon the tension. The result might be a new genre: nonfiction horror.