In the midst of children, a gentle frame. A look between the various looks that pass back & forth between the children, students in some system of congregation, some form of educated body, but of what nature or structure, it is unclear. They roam, they wander, they fight back, they seem to hold as much authority with their words & choices as their governors.
When I met Amanda Rose Wilder, it was in New Orleans. We were there together with separate films, & it was my first time back in town since leaving there somewhat inauspiciously in April. Wilder, who, teamed with renowned editor & documentarian Robert Greene on Approaching the Elephant, brings us one of the most plaintiff, resolutely unprejudiced looks at Free School concepts at work in the modern era --- a time beset upon by new standards of aptitude, curriculum, & discipline --- where the supervision (read: lifeguarding/surveillance) of our young is often confused with governance & nurturing. I spoke to her in November, at BRICArts & BAM, after her film’s European premiere at CPH:DOX, it’s subsequent bows at RIDM in Montreal & Torino Film Festival, & the announcement of its inclusion in IFP’s Best Film Not Playing at a Theatre Near You series at MOMA, & an Independent Spirit Award nomination (the Truer Than Fiction award).
EL: So how was CPH/DOX?
ARW: It was great. We had three screenings, & they were all sold out, so we added a fourth one. It wasn’t one of these festivals where you look out in the audience & there are all these people wearing pearl necklaces & you realize it’s probably not their movie. With Copenhagen, it was their movie, & the same in Italy.
EL: You were in Torino?
ARW: Yeah. I mean you always only talk to the people who liked the movie, never to the ones who didn’t.
EL: It’s been well-received?
ARW: It has & it hasn’t. We’ve had some people say they didn’t understand why the film was so “unstructured."
EL: People have very strange ideas about docs. That’s something I don’t understand. I always hear peoples notes about things & it’s always “Why not build it up more?” & never open to a free exploration of a person or place that is nebulous & fleeting. Kind of the way a Free School is supposed to operate. It’s like, why would you want it to be anything else?
ARW: Well, people also expect you to be an expert on everything in your film, & while I might know more about Free Schools than you, I don’t know as much as say, Alex [Khost, teacher & founder of Teddy McArdle Free School], or one of the other teachers. You know it’s not supposed to be about being an authority, but about the filmmaking, & the discovery.
EL: Well you get that right away from watching it. It’s something that weds the audience to your experience, that we’re exploring & learning it the same as you, in the same moment.
ARW: Yeah that’s not my style, I knew that shooting at one school wasn’t going to give me that [authority]. And it’s not a representational movie. This is not all Free Schools. It’s one particular story. This is about one Free School, in its very first year, at a very specific time, with a very certain group of people, so when people come out of it & say, “'This shows free schools don't work in these ways', & it's just..."
EL: ...It’s not supposed to be the be-all-end-all, right.
ARW: It’s like if people look at The Maysles Brothers’ SALESMAN & look at it exclusively for what it says about salesmen. That’s not the way it was intended.
EL: In your work can you recall how this worldview took shape? It seems exploratory, at least that’s the aspect that I’m drawn to.
ARW: Well I was at Marlboro College, & studying poetry, & really frustrated with my poetry. And my father was a teacher, an elementary school teacher. He was really inspirational to me, he’s an amazing teacher, & really attuned to nature, & animals, & children, & he would take me on these long walks as a kid. He brought me to England & took me to visit Summerhill, in Suffolk, which is the first Free School. 'He's one of those teachers who stands out in your memory, every single person who has him remembers him, so well. That’s the kind of person I look for in a subject too, someone whom you’re drawn to, how that person lives. So I got a Hi-8 camera & started taking shots of little things, parties & friends, & then at Marlboro took a Documentary Film class, & it was on after that. I made this movie about how I played football in High School, & went back there —- this was a boarding school I had been kicked out of, gone to on my own volition because my dad was moving to Missouri & I wanted to stay —- so I did this movie about me, & this girl who wrestled, & intercut our two stories, & you know, put music that was climaxing right as she knocked her opponent down, & everyone in the school was there, watching this, & I just realized the power of movies. You know, no one reads these little poems, but I make this thing, & all these people are coming up saying, “Wow, that was amazing,” who all watched it.
EL: What was that movie called?
ARW: I don’t even remember (laughs)...
EL: Can we see it?
ARW: I don’t think so... I don’t even know if I could see it if I wanted to... Maybe it’s on a VHS somewhere...
EL: So it was always about documenting something?
ARW: I’m not sure. I was sort of intoxicated with the making of films, but I don’t think I carried any formal influences until I saw GIMME SHELTER, by the Maysles Brothers. I left Marlboro & went to Chicago, worked in a cafe, & I remember watching GIMME SHELTER & rewound it & watched it straight through again. I remember standing there watching this movie & realizing, “This is why I want to make movies.” I think this relates to documentaries & narrative movies, in the way it can, like a poem is something that people always refer to as untranslatable —- as in, the poem can be about the tree, but it’s also about the branches —- be about so much for the person watching it, experienceng it. To me the idea of finding the poetry & prisms in life is what is exciting, & that’s how that movie felt to me: It’s about drugs, the 60s, violence, American culture... The last 20 minutes of GIMME SHELTER is the work of a genius.
EL: Do you feel like if you tried to make this film about an elementary school of the standard, public variety & type, that it could have achieved the degree of intimacy you managed with this film? It seems like the freedom of the atmosphere, the openness, extends to the children's personalities just as well as the access/rules regarding access to the children.
ARW: Well it’s hard to say for sure, maybe at a more uptight school I’d have found a way in, but yes, that’s why I stuck with the people at Teddy McArdle, because everyone was so open and comfortable with my being there, and I realized the free school model would allow me to film children as real people, the grittiness and sharp lights of childhood, their rhythms, which I’d seen captured best in movies about kids outside of school environments —- PIXOTE [dir. Hector Babenco], STREETWISE [dir. Martin Bell], CHILDREN UNDERGROUND [dir. Edet Belzberg] —- strangely all movies about kids on the streets. Which is an interesting thing to think about. I guess that’s where children are typically so ‘free’.
EL: Children can be so cruel, & also so fleeting in their sentiments. The amount of times it seems like a child is being hostile to one moment later being kind & generous in the picture, this seems like a commonplace. So if children are the same everywhere (public, private, or free schools alike), in your mind/opinion, what is the key difference in these children, & in the lives you captured, as opposed to those of the former? Was there something of this fleeting nature to the moods & tenors of your subjects / their dialogue that fit within the poetic documentary form which you prefer to work within?
ARW: I still have my first diary and it’s filled with love and hate back to back...I HATE ISAIAH!!...crossed out...I LOVE ISAIAH!!... Isn’t that what childhood is like, a tumbling series of meaningful encounters? And when you have a say in something, when something is yours, it is even more important. I think the kids’ passion in the movie is in part due to their sense of ownership of the school - passion to tear it down and build it up. Conflict was not swiftly stomped out by authoritative adults - nor was exploration or fun, even sometimes what some may call - depending on your notions of safety - risky exploration or fun. So yes, I think you see more of the uninhibited energy of childhood at Teddy McArdle and other free schools. Everyone is able to for the most part set their own rhythm, or to choose to become a part of a rhythm, throughout the day, which can sometimes feel like a cacophony, but get close and you realize there are several rhythms going on at once, sometimes creating discord and other times great beauty. So yes...there was a very unique and vibrant rhythm to Teddy McArdle, and poetry is all rhythm. Long ago I thought if I added music to the movie it would be jazz improv, but decided it was better without any score. Instead we used audio of various kids playing the piano, so the source was from within the material but we chose where to put it. I love this kind of interplay of subject and artist and where one begins and the other ends. It reminds me of this part of an interview with poet Gary Snyder being interviewed by John Jacoby:
Snyder Have you ever tried singing a range of mountains?
Snyder Do you know how you do it?
Snyder Well, you sit down somewhere where you’re looking at a long mountain horizon.
Then you sing it up and down all the way along like that. I tried it on the mountains up above
Death Valley, the Panamint range, one time. I tried it many times until I got it right. You know, until
I got to know that skyline so well that I knew when I was following the melody that the mountains were
making. At first it was hit or miss kind of. And then you get closer. Then you begin to feel it.
Then you get so that it’s a kind of source of form...
EL: There are moments where the adults (teachers) appear confused, to the point of bewildered at their surroundings, & more importantly, what their roles seem to ask of them. Is this something you observed, & does this make sense to you? Did you ever feel like you understood that feeling or like this was a feeling you experienced in your work with the kids?
ARW: I keep in mind words Albert Maysles repeats again and again about how to treat people that you’re filming: with empathy and understanding. That’s not to say you only show the happy moments, but no matter what’s shown it is relayed through a humane, even loving, touch. I care very much for everyone involved with Teddy McArdle and respected what they were trying to do, not that I agreed with every decision. I’m sure they wouldn’t in retrospect either, but that’s life. We move forward. Was it always perfect? Of course not. It was the first year. Save for Dana, the male teacher you see the most besides Alex, none of the adults had worked at a free school before. None of the young people had been to a free school before. So the adults were learning in the moment as much as the children. As much as the filmmaker and the viewer. I tell you, I would rather be around and would rather film someone trying something new - someone who even if they are at times struggling - is ALIVE - than someone who, say, is staring at their phone or television set or has been teaching the same subject in the same manner for 35 years and is, you can see in his or her face, dead. There’s nothing wrong with struggle. Life isn’t about being the perfect person, it’s about exploration and passion and caring about one another and trying things and doing your best. And you see people being very much alive at Teddy McArdle. It’s funny, I thought that about you too.
EL: (coughs, sputtering) I’m sorry... What?
ARW: That you have a very alive face. Like Denis Lavant in [Leos] Carax’ films. Carax shows his people very much, in my mind, alive. Like Cassavetes. (laughs) Maybe also for an adult allowing a child to step onto an equal platform, especially for an adult new to this way, is quite a lot to wrap your head around. I think sometimes you see, in my film, adults struggling in their minds with these old and new power structures. I remember it being quite challenging to navigate myself.
EL: That's sweet. Denis Lavant’s face is like a story all by itself...The characters in Carax’s films, they’re unreadable much in the way that the children in your film are. You mentioned elsewhere how films like LE FILS (dir. Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne) & PIXOTE (dir. Hector Babenco) have informed your work. I’m wondering if there’s a place where narrative stops for you & docs keep you going, or if you see yourself moving more into the realm of the narrative, employing these documentary elements.
ARW: For me, all of Carax' films fall into a category you could call expressive cinema. Particularly BOY MEETS GIRL. The sort of film where you walk into the theater as it's beginning and as you watch and listen the presence of the filmmaker permeates the room. Human, not machine made films. And naturally, because our minds do not always think or experience the world narratively or from one action to the next, these sort of expressive films sometimes take on qualities of dreams (which Carax so well realizes), or poems. Maya Deren talks about this distinction between poetic/dream and narrative structure in film during a 1963 symposium called, aptly, 'Poetry and the Film: A Symposium' with Arthur Miller, Dylan Thomas, Parker Tyler and Willard Maas. Deren says, "the relationship between the images in dreams, in montage, and in poetry--...they are related because they are held together by either an emotion or a meaning that they have in common, rather than by the logical action...It's almost as if you were standing at a window and looking out onto the street, and there are children playing hopscotch. Well, that's your visual experience. Behind you, in the room, are women discussing hats or something, and that's your auditory experience. You stand at the place where these two come together by virtue of your presence. What relates these two moments is your position in relation to the two of them. They don't know about each other, and so you stand by the window and have a sense of afternoon, which is neither the children in the street nor the women talking behind you but a curious combination of both...' So I guess I appreciate Carax's acceptance of the dream or poetic state as elemental to our experience of reality, his curious combinations, and the presence and expressiveness he brings to his films. Deren of course embraces the dream state too. And then for me the greats of direct cinema, Maysles, [Charlotte] Zwerin, [Frederic] Wiseman, link to these narrative and experimental filmmakers less through the embrace of the dream state but through the expressive potential in the filming and editing of real, unstaged people and situations. If you're alert and intuitive you can capture the unlikely and reach a level of surprise when filming in an observational manner that can reach the excitement of experimental filmmakers' 'curious combinations’.
EL: Also the conflict resolution aspect of the whole system of governance (or non-governance, depending on how you look at it) seems like the trickiest part : Kids have a hard enough time getting along in general, but without a set hierarchy, without a set system of codes & rules, it seems like there would be added obstacles to any conflict being resolved. And yet, they manage to do it. I wonder what it was like in this environment, with a focus on the children's ability to cotton being offended & swallow their hurt pride at times in ways that would put more experienced adults to shame.
ARW: It was very inspiring. Given a voice, children can be incredibly eloquent. Given a say they can be incredibly strong, even in difficult circumstances.
Film Stills ⓒ2014 Kingdom County Productions
Filmmaker Images ⓒ2014 1985 / Evan Louison