Amanda Rose Wilder’s debut feature Approaching the Elephant spies into the first year of a “free school”, a radical institution where all the rules are decided democratically and the teachers and students have equal say. An intimate observation reminiscent of the early direct cinema of Frederick Wiseman and the Maysles, the film captures an elemental power struggle between students Lucy and Jio, and their school director Alex Khost in striking black and white.
Approaching the Elephant was unveiled at True/False 2014, screened last weekend at the Wisconsin Film Festival and plays for the second time today at the Sarasota Film Festival. I got the chance to chat with Amanda about her film and its inspiration a couple weeks ago.
T/F: How did you first hear about the idea of a free school?
Amanda Rose Wilder: My father is an elementary school teacher. When I was ten we took a trip to visit Summerhill, the most well-known free school.
T/F: Where’s that at?
ARW: Suffolk, England. It was founded in 1921 by A.S. Neill.
We visited for a couple days. It was a memorable and in some ways shocking experience. In elementary school I was the girl that followed the rules – but liked kids who stirred things up. Summerhill was full of uninhibited energy. The kids were all ‘characters’…self-confident, bold, frank.
I remember I sat in on a writing class that began with a free write, something I’ve done since but hadn’t at that point. I remember sitting there thinking, “what do they want me to free write?” while everyone else was furiously scribbling whatever they wished. I vividly remember a boy shouting during a democratic meeting, ‘fuck off and die!’ and went home quoting that phrase.
T/F: So how did you decide on a free school as a setting for a film? Was it an idea that formed that early on?
ARW: Well, it came about after I graduated from Marlboro College. Marlboro is a progressive college; the last two years you spend working on a thesis of your own design. My thesis was titled “The Poetic Documentary and the Documentary Poem” and I had gotten really into documentarians the Maysles and Wiseman and poets Marianne Moore and William Carlos Williams and how poetry intersects with documentary. After I graduated, my film professor, Jay Craven, asked if I wanted to make a documentary with him on progressive education. So, we scraped together a little money and I went to the Alternative Education Resource Organization (AERO) Conference. I conducted about 15 interviews with anyone I could grab. One of those people, who I just met on the street, was Alex Khost. He told me he was months away from opening a free school in New Jersey, 20 minutes from where I was living. He was open, charming, comfortable in front of the camera. After the interview I asked if I could show up on their first day.
From the first day at Teddy McArdle Free School I could tell it would be an incredible thing to document and would fit nicely with the kind of direct cinema filmmaking I’d grown to love. There was a story unfolding before the camera, and a fascinating group of people, most of whom were children.
I shot for two school years. The film comprises the first year, from the first day to the last day. I amassed about 240 hours total.
T/F: So, what’s true/false about your film?
ARW: Oh man, good question . . .
Well, here’s why I decided this was a story I wanted to tell: I quickly realized that the free school model allows for kids to be themselves in a way most schools do not. Their personalities are really able to come out. And as a filmmaker I have an interest in capturing people honestly, as their full-blown selves, warts and all, you might say, but lovingly.
I think you see this in similar ways in documentaries that are about kids outside of school, films like Streetwise, Children Underground. Kids’ lives, as much as adults’, are messy and complicated. I thought, wow, this model is allowing for me to capture the lives of children, something very true and rarely shown.
So I began the film because I had an interest in free schools and then realized I could capture this incredible social dynamic, these complex personalities. The model became a means to an end, a context for a story I wanted to tell.
Lucy in Approaching the Elephant
T/F: Yeah, it really reminded me of how intense childhood was, how important every conflict was in the moment.
ARW: Yes, and more and more kids are being stripped of their ability to take risks and figure out conflicts, which leads to them not knowing how to. I came across a great article recently called “The Overprotected Kid”. In The Atlantic. There’s a line that describes well what I think is happening in child-rearing, “the erosion of child culture.”
As much as I am inspired by Wiseman and the Maysles, I’m inspired by Cassavetes. Love Streams and A Woman Under the Influence as by Gimme Shelter and High School. Cassavetes is my model for showing people honestly. Perhaps there’s a link between the erosion of child culture and the erosion of independent cinema. Films are less wild, less messy, less alive and energetic. More documentarians should take cues from Cassavetes and less from advertising and grant qualifiers.
T/F: It’s interesting how much Cassavetes influences documentary. His work always seems to come up . . .
ARW: I feel like Cassavetes and the Maysles are soul sisters, two sides of a coin. Another of my influences on this movie was the Dardenne brothers. Have you seen Les Fils (The Son)? So much woodworking in that film. And a central man/boy relationship.
So, getting back to your question, what I hope is true about the movie is the depiction of childhood, in this full, vital, energetic, Cassavetes inspired way.
What’s false? I tried to be as true to what I saw as possible. But, of course, what I hope everyone knows, I was only there on certain days, I only captured when I hit record, and we edited.
But I feel the story is the story of the year. I think we accomplished realizing that.
T/F: What effect did you think the camera had on what was going on?
ARW: Not much. Because I was there from the first day, I was taken as a part of the community. I find if you relax and don’t get in the way, people relax. Being a one-person band helps (I did camera and sound). I tried not to be a dominating personality over the kids, and I think they accepted me among them because of that.
Lucy especially was very comfortable from the get-go in part I think because her mother is an avid photographer, so Lucy was accustomed to a camera in her face. Lucy would say to new students, “That’s Amanda, don’t look at her camera, she just wants us to act natural.”
ARW: They picked it up quickly. Kids in general are less self-conscious than adults.
T/F: It was really fascinating to see Alex, an adult, get pulled into all of the conflict between the kids because of the nature of the school?
ARW: Well, it was his school as much as theirs. One of my favorite scenes is the meeting where Lucy and Alex are debating whether Alex should be allowed to make safety decisions by himself or if they should be voted on democratically. More specifically, whether Alex telling Lucy to not jump off a high storage bin was harassment. I love it because they both take the meeting so seriously. Lucy holds her ground against Alex and Alex treats her with complete respect while at the same time stating his points. They’re complete equals. And after the meeting, they go about their ways and are cordial.
How conflict is resolved between Lucy and Alex and between Jio and Alex is, of course, very different. And between Lucy and Jio. The trio was so fascinating. I felt so lucky to have not just one but three incredible people, and the dynamics between them, to focus on.
T/F: When I talked with Robert (Approaching the Elephant editor Robert Greene) he said that the decision to use black and white made the story feel more timeless. Could you talk about that decision?
ARW: While I was editing, before Robert came on as a collaborator, I’d now and then throw the material in black and white. The editing always seemed to just come together more naturally that way. I think it has something to do with going with the elemental, pure nature of the story. It looks so beautiful in black and white, like it could be from any time.
T/F: Yeah, the conflict really feels elemental.
ARW: Yeah, it highlights for me how it’s about social dynamics, personality, people’s faces . . . I think that’s all I have to say about it. It was a pretty intuitive choice.
The 2015 Neither/Nor series kicks-off on True/False Eve, Wednesday, March 4, with a free event at the Ragtag Cinema. At 6pm that evening, Ragtag will host a reception featuring all the guests of this year’s series. At 7pm, we will screen Bogdan Dziworski’s shorts program Arena of Life. After the screening, this year’s Neither/Nor curator, Ela Bittencourt, will moderate a Q&A with Dziworski.
image from Arena of Life
Famous for both his cinematography (see Through and Through) and still photography (check out his exhibit at Uprise Bakery), Bogdan Dziworski is one of Poland’s most imaginative visual artists. In this shorts program, we focus on the spectacular, unconventional profile films he directed in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Arena of Life (dir. Bogdan Dziworski, 1979, 20 min.) takes us behind the scenes of a circus, as performers tirelessly put on a show. Biathlon (dir. Bogdan Dziworski, 1978, 11 min) ogles professional skiers as they triumphantly shoot out into the sky and then crash to the ground. The masterpiece A Few Stories About a Man (dir. Bogdan Dziworski, 1983, 20 min) introduces us to Jerzy Orlowski, an agile, armless man, and shows us how he dives, draws, skis and, yes, urinates. In the melancholic, whimsical Szapito (dir. Bogdan Dziworski, 1984, 29 min), Dziworski revisits the circus and observes older performers as they struggle to nail their acts.
This event is free. Tickets will be available day of show at the Ragtag Cinema box office.
As you’ve probably noticed by now, three buildings on the University of Missouri campus will become cinemas for the first time at this year’s Fest. A little while back our photo team went out and scouted ahead so that you can familiarize yourself with the spaces before their transformation. Take a look.
Cornell Hall at the College of Business
Geology Lecture Hall in the Geological Sciences Building
Shilpa Ray is as raucous a harmonium player as you will find and possibly the first in the history of True/False buskers. The Brooklyn musician is coming to True/False with her backing band to play the Saturday Showcase at Rose Music Hall and even sneak in a few busking gigs throughout the Fest. She’s a documentary film fan and sandwich lover. So, she’ll fit in just fine.
I got the chance to chat with Shilpa via email a few weeks back while New York was facing down a possible blizzard.
True/False: As you know, True/False is a film festival primarily focusing on documentary film. The films at the fest play with ideas of fact and fiction and what lies in between. Considering this, what would the synopsis of a film about your life and career be?
Shilpa Ray: A woman dreaming of a life like Bonnie and Clyde becomes Dillinger instead.
T/F: Are you a documentary fan? Do you have a favorite documentary film and why is it a favorite?
SR: I do love me some documentaries. I enjoy a lot of music ones but I also draw a lot of inspiration from non-musicals as well. I’m a huge Ken Burns fan. Jazz and The West are my favorites. I also love Ric Burns’ New York, Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man, Robert J. Flaherty’s Nanook of the North, and Martin Scorcese’s The Blues. I suppose the documentary series that had the greatest impact on me was the PBS Rock and Roll mini series. I recorded it on to VHS when I was a teenager. My parents were incredibly strict when I was growing up, so for fun I read a lot of books, listened to tons of music and watch this series on repeat. I got my mind blown watching footage of the VU, The Doors, the Stooges, David Bowie, the Animals, The Yardbirds, Pink Floyd, Jimi Hendrix, Grateful Dead, Janis and Big Brother Holding Company, The Jefferson Airplane, The Byrds, Sly and the Family Stone, P-Funk, Television, Patti Smith, Blondie, Grand Master Flash, Afrika Bambaatta and Kraftwerk . I watched it so religiously. I’d jump around in my bedroom miming all the parts. It was my world.
T/F: The theme for this year’s fest is ‘The Long Now’. How do you and your band fit into this idea of the long now? What does ‘The Long Now’ mean to you?
SR: Isn’t that just defining reality? I suppose documentaries are feeding into a certain kind of fantasy. Condensing one’s subject into highlights, climaxes and rock bottoms. In the meantime we’re all making sandwiches, sleeping, working, getting high and paying bills– lots and lots of bills.
T/F: You will be performing both as a busker and with your band at the Saturday night showcase. How will your busker and showcase performances contrast for fest attendees looking to catch you in both settings?
SR: Whoa! Busking? Really? I had no idea. Sounds like fun though. From what people tell me I’m “really intense” so we’ll see how that works out in-between making sandwiches.
T/F: Sandwiches? What made you bring up sandwiches?
SR: I was so hungry. We are going through “Snowmaggedon” right now and everyone got hysterical. There’s no food left at my grocery store. It’s crazy out here, with not enough snow.
T/F: Last year, 20,000 Days on Earth, the film about a day in Nick Cave’s life, showed at T/F. You have toured with Cave and released a solo record on his label. What has that been like to work with someone of his stature?
SR: He’s a lot of fun. One of the funniest and real people I’ve ever met. He used to make me sandwiches on the tour bus. They were pretty damn good.
T/F: Other than Nick Cave, who are some other musicians you have worked with who influence your music?
SR: Steven Bernstein. He’s more than a stalwart in the New York jazz scene. He’s worked with John Zorn, Lou Reed, John Lurie, tons and tons of rad people. I got to work with him for the Sly Stone and Shell Silverstein tributes held in NYC a few years ago. What a fierce arranger! I was floored by how he can command a large jazz ensemble. Such a magical presence. He’s my favorite.
T/F: Often times, musicians who aren’t white, heterosexual males get pigeonholed based on their identity. Somehow, all they sing about is this perceived identity while white, heterosexual males sing about themes and topics that are more universal – or so the thinking goes.
SR: That’s not true. Musicians play and sing about whatever they want regardless of color and gender. We’re all universally self absorbed hedonists. Sure my life has not been lived the same as a white man, but I don’t feel that what I’m doing is marked by my race or gender. I actually feel that white male culture doesn’t take enough risks and modern music has become incredibly boring. If the music industry is constantly looking for another Kurt Cobain it is and it has been fucking itself over. Everyone knows that.
New T/F 2015 Merch is now in stock and on sale, both in our online store and in the T/F pop-up shop in Makes Scents at 19 S. 9th Street in downtown CoMo. If you want to browse in person, Makes Scents is open seven days a week, Monday-Saturday 10-6, Friday 10-8 and Sunday Noon-5.
T/F 2015 kicks-off on Thursday, March 5 with the Jubilee, our annual masquerade extravaganza. There’ll be costumes, cocktails and buskers a-plenty throughout lobby and corridors of the august Missouri Theatre. Eventually, we’ll all find our seats and take in the opening night film. This year we are thrilled to present the fun and fascinating Best of Enemies, directed by Robert Gordon and Academy Award-winner and T/F alum Morgan Neville of Twenty Feet From Stardom (T/F 2013).
image from Best of Enemies
This archival film utilizes crackling editing and sound design to take us back to the 1960s, when ABC paired the disdaining, incredulous conservative William F. Buckley with the jeremiad-spouting liberal Gore Vidal in a series of televised debates. Their spirited clashes embodied the culture wars of the 60s and haunted both men for the rest of their lives.
image from Best of Enemies
Filmmakers Neville and Gordon will both be on hand for what is sure to be a lively post-film Q and A. We hope to see you there! And don’t forget the rest of the T/F 2015 film slate will be announced at 6 PM tonight!
This Thursday, February 12 is 5% for T/F day at Lucky’s Market. We’ll receive 5% of everything you purchase all day from 7am-10pm, so come on in, get some healthy food and help support the Fest.
In addition in between 4-7 PM in the Lucky’s Cafe, there will be music from T/F buskers The Flood Brothers playing, a Chocolate sampling fair, give-aways of 4 Gateway Packets and 4 Busker bands and T/F Merch for sale, including the new 2015 designs. We hope to see you there!
This year we’re celebrating Poland’s groundbreaking contributions to nonfiction cinema in the 2015 edition of Neither/Nor, our annual repertory sidebar focusing on “chimeric” work that straddles the line between fiction and nonfiction. This year’s program is a collaboration with film critic Ela Bittencourt, with the support of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. We will be spotlighting a generation of Polish filmmakers born during World War II. Living in the communist Polish People’s Republic, these filmmakers created formally and politically daring work that continues to influence cinema today. All Neither/Nor screenings are free to the public (access during the Fest is through the Q).
image from A Few Stories About a Man (Neither/Nor 2015)
Throughout True/False 2015 (March 5-8), we will be screening and discussing films from radical luminaries Marcel Lozinski, Grzegorz Królikiewicz, Bogdan Dziworski and Wojciech Wiszniewski, as well as works from younger directors Maciej Drygas and Andrzej Czarnecki. Confirmed guests include Królikiewicz, Dziworski, cinematographer Jacek Petrycki and editor Dorota Wardeszkiewicz.
We’re going to turn things over to T/F programmer Chris Boeckmann to explain how this year’s N/N program emerged from a passionate discussion surrounding an earlier T/F film:
On October 21, 2010, True/False’s screening committee huddled around a small television and watched At the Edge of Russia, a film directed by a then-unknown twenty-something Pole named Michal Marczak. Michal’s film observes a group of Russian soldiers stationed in a remote part of Siberia. Their mission is to protect the border from Arctic Ocean threats. Outside of the context of a documentary festival, many viewers would assume Michal’s Waiting for Godot-esque comedy to be a work of fiction. Every composition is perfect, every laugh feels carefully timed, and the film is built on a neatly constructed narrative. In reality, however, Michal considers his film a work of nonfiction cinema, and it screened almost exclusively at documentary events, including True/False.
After our committee first watched the film, we fiercely debated its documentary claims. That debate continues to this day. In November 2012, the formidable Sean Farnel — a Canadian programmer who included the film in the 2011 edition of his own festival — wrote an article for Indiewire in which he retroactively accused Michal of being “dishonest” for labeling his film a documentary.
image from At the Edge of Russia (T/F 2011)
The 2015 edition of Neither/Nor, which focuses on Polish documentary visionaries of the 1970s-1990s, can be traced back to this 2010 argument. As you will soon see, Michal’s film can be viewed as part of a rich Polish tradition. Before releasing At the Edge of Russia, Michal studied under documentary legend Marcel Lozinski at the Andrzej Wajda Master School of Film Directing. Marcel describes the world as a fish tank and suggests that it’s his job as director to shake that fish tank – i.e. provoke truth, often through staging – and document what happens. Marcel’s profound and mischievous work is explored in this series, as are the films of Dorota Wardeszkiewicz, the editor of At the Edge of Russia. At the beginning of her career, Dorota worked alongside the late Wojciech Wiszniewski, considered one of the fathers of Polish creative documentary. In the years since, she has collaborated with some of Poland’s most innovative documentary directors.
These artists — along with other crucial figures, such as Grzegorz Królikiewicz and Bogdan Dziworski — were born at the start of World War II and created many of their most groundbreaking works as citizens of the communist Polish People’s Republic (1944-1989). How and why did this staggeringly creative cinema emerge out of such a seemingly stifling system? Was it created in spite of that system or because of it? We’ve asked the astute and gifted film writer Ela Bittencourt to guide us through this astonishing, daunting and frequently overlooked period of film history. Her tremendous work speaks for itself.
The Fest will present six Neither/Nor programs throughout T/F 2015. The films include Through and Through (1973) Grzegorz Królikiewicz’s bold and startling debut, which examines a famous 1933 trial using psychodramatic techniques.
image from Through and Through (1973)
We’ll also be showing How to Live (1977) where Marcel Lozinski documents life at government-sponsored summer camp where couples learn to become the ideal communist family.
image from How to Live (1977)
In addition, we’ll show the short A Few Stories About a Man (1983) by Through and Through cinematographer Bogdan Dziworski, who directs a mysterious and mesmerizing portrait of a talented, armless man named Jerzy Orlowski.
image from A Few Stories About a Man (1983)
The full lineup will be announced on Wednesday, February 11.
In addition to film screenings, the festival will be publishing a monograph written by this year’s Neither/Nor curator Ela Bittencourt. Along with essays reflecting on the series’ films, the monograph features interviews with Królikiewicz, Lozinski, Dziworski, editor Agnieszka Bojanowska, Wardeszkiewicz and Drygas. Bittencourt is a freelance film and art critic whose writing has appeared in Artforum, Frieze Magazine, Cineaste, Film Quarterly and Reverse Shot, among other publications.
Neither/Nor is presented by the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences. Now in its third edition, the series seeks to start a conversation about historical examples of chimeric cinema. The 2013 edition, curated by film writer Eric Hynes, looked at New York City chimeras from the 1960s, while the 2014 edition, curated by film critic and filmmaker Godfrey Cheshire, investigated Iranian cinema of the 1990s. You can read the 2013 monograph here and the 2014 monograph here.
For months now, the True/False production team has labored tirelessly in their secret lab, engineering the strange alternate universe we’ll all soon inhabit. Photographer Stephen Bybee recently gained access to their lair and brought back these mysterious images of the team at work and the weird objects they are creating. Take your first peek into the world of True/False 2015 as it comes into being.
We’re delighted to announce filmmaker Adam Curtis as the recipient of our 2015 True Vision Award in honor of his dedication to and advancement in the field of nonfiction filmmaking. Curtis has a long-standing relationship with the Fest, starting with his appearance in 2005 with The Power of Nightmares and again in 2010 with It Felt Like a Kiss. He’ll be in-person again this year presenting his new film Bitter Lake as well as some other selections.
Over the course of a 20-plus year career at the BBC, Curtis has refined and perfected a unique cinematic approach to history’s savage ironies. His perennial concern is power, specifically the ability to warp systems of thought intended for understanding the world into tools utilized for controlling it, with unpredictable results. His incisive, frequently audacious films, commonly narrated by Curtis himself, combine original interviews with an unmatched command of archival material. Curtis repurposes existing bits of audio and video from the massive BBC archives into pointed direct citations, whimsical metaphors and abstract cinematic onslaughts. The result is a dreamlike atmosphere where everything we think we know feels suddenly uncertain.
Curtis first gained widespread acclaim for 1992’s Pandora’s Box: A Fable from the Age of Science, a six-part series examining the consequences of the failed technocratic management of society, comparing Soviet communism, cold war systems analysis and industrial agriculture’s introduction of the insecticide DDT.
His second major film was 1995’s The Living Dead: Three Films About the Power of the Past, which studies the exploitation of the history of the Second World War by multiple generations of British politicians.
In 2002 Curtis created the unforgettable Century of the Self, a four-part examination of psychoanalysis and its under-recognized role in the emergence of a public relations industry, which in turn came to dominate 20th century life.
image from Century of the Self
In The Power of Nightmares: The Rise of the Politics of Fear (T/F 2005), Curtis traces parallel histories of neo-conservatism and radical Islamism, beginning from the fascinating biographies of the movements’ founders, Leo Strauss and Sayyid Qutb.
image from The Power of Nightmares
Curtis’ most radical experiment, It Felt Like A Kiss (T/F 2010), was originally conceived as an installation piece in collaboration with theatre company Punchdrunk. This work drops Curtis’ trademark narration for simple, declarative onscreen text and confronts the viewer with images of America’s cultural and political dominion, presented as the fragments of a fading dream set to infectious pop music.
image from It Felt Like a Kiss
2011 saw the release of Curtis’ All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace, a three-part film exploring the political implications of misguided techno-utopianism, Ayn Rand’s dedicated circle of followers and a cynical, biological understanding of human motivation.
image from All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace
In 2013 he collaborated with the band Massive Attack on a mixed media project Everything is Going According to Plan. Also well worth visiting is Curtis’ blog “The Medium and the Message” which like his films draws clips from the BBC archives to reexamine the way we view the world.
Curtis’ new film, Bitter Lake, takes its title from a fateful meeting in February 1945 between president Franklin D Roosevelt and King Ibn Saud of Saudi Arabia on the “bitter lake” of the Suez Canal. Curtis argues a deal struck during their meeting set the course for much of the rest of the 20th century, particularly in the nation of Afghanistan.
Image from Bitter Lake
The True Vision Award is the only award given out at the Fest, this year with the support of Restoration Eye Care. Curtis is the twelfth recipient of the True Vision Award. Each year, the award has been designed and cast in bronze by mid-Missouri sculptor Larry Young. Past winners include Laura Poitras, James Marsh, Victor Kossakovsky and Amir Bar-Lev.