‘Approaching the Elephant’ illuminates free school effort with charm and grace


Urmilla Kuttikad

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Approaching the Elephant was the rare film I went into without any preconceived notions — I had no idea what to expect because I wasn’t familiar with the concept of free schools. As the movie explains, free schools arose in Venezuela during the Industrial Revolution to protest the accepted factory-esque model of education.

There are many models for free schools, but the documentary specifically explores the efforts of the Teddy McArdle Free School in Little Falls, NJ to take off the ground. At Teddy McArdle, grades, classes and attendance aren’t mandatory. The children go to school because they want to be there, they learn what they want to learn and all rules are decided through democratic process led by the students.
Presented entirely in a retro black and white, Approaching the Elephant is entirely observational. Interviews are rare and there seems to be no guided message whatsoever. Instead, the movie simply observes the school for a year — its frequent downs and shining ups. The natural charm and interactions of the young children keep this style of documentary fascinating. For a film about such a rare and relatively unknown topic, this directorial choice is crucial.
Regardless of its staunch lack of bias, Approaching the Elephant nevertheless finds you rooting with everything you’ve got for the school to succeed. The co-director of the school, Alexander Khost, is full of such determination, goodwill and compassion for the kids — and the kids themselves teem with such potential — that the film becomes not only moving, but galvanizing.
Though the school only remained open for two years due to insufficient funds, the progress and potential shown in that time is incredible. Approaching the Elephant does a great service in illuminating the effort and poses a striking question as to the power of non-conformity.
By Urmila Kutikkad