Approaching The Elephant | Antenna

Antenna Documentary Film Festival returned for its fifth season in October just passed, screening the very best in non-fiction films from Australia and around the world, the Antenna DocTalk series, retrospective program and international guests. Screening the very best documentaries from across the globe, Antenna offers a program that is both intelligent and diverse; one that challenges conceptions and conventions of the world around us. 

This is the third year Salty Popcorn has loved and covered Antenna and to follow on from our reviews from the festival of FINDERS KEEPERS and PERVERT PARK Kernel Emma follows on with APPROACHING THE ELEPHANT, a documentary that looks at a school with no rules, every kid’s dream. Enjoy Emma’s review……..all the best………JK.


Approaching the Elephant Movie Poster Image
Approaching the Elephant | Antenna Documentary Film Festival | Salty Popcorn Movie Review | Movie Poster Image



APPROACHING THE ELEPHANT is an observational documentary that explores the concept of ‘free school’ for pre-teens. At free school there are no core subjects or exams – instead there are rhythms of the day that students can choose to be part of. The student’s education is democratic and rules are established in meetings that are oddly reminiscent of parliamentary debates. Treating children like adults comes with mixed results as audiences observe the manic and at times dangerous daily situations that arise. Despite the chaos there is an, albeit experimental, method to the madness. This is apparent when the children sit and discuss their feelings, at times in a more frank and productive fashion than grown adults. The verite style film does not push ‘free school’ as the right approach and instead observes the passionate teachers and their twelve students tackle each day with hilarious and heart warming results.

For many children, education in the pre-teen years is somewhat of a challenge, always looking to push the boundaries and never very good at sitting still. Given that children of this age have a significant amount of energy and are not always well equipped to handle it – it is no surprise many struggle with the confinement of a classroom and textbooks. While for some children, a lot of structure is necessary – free school seeks to provide an alternative for those who do not fit this norm.


Approaching the Elephant Movie Image
Approaching the Elephant | Antenna Documentary Film Festival | Salty Popcorn Movie Review | Movie Image


There is a certain brilliance that comes with this untraditional method where we observe teachers and student’s debate as equals. Each child has their own opinion and they are confortable voicing it in a democratic manner. Meetings aside, the lack of structured classes in free school often result in absolute chaos. Children are seen climbing out of windows, swearing at one another and manically operating saws. One student marches through the hall playing the trumpet, nearly missing another who chases his female companion at lightning speed. The school hosts a talent show where a little boy makes origami and another farts with his elbow. One thing is apparent – the children clearly flourish expressing their creative talents and are indeed very passionate, if not a little mad.

With the absence of interviews, statistics and comparison to traditional schools APPROACHNG THE ELEPHANT really does leave the evidence to speak for itself. Director Amanda Rose Wilder does an excellent job at using observational footage to develop the key personalities of the film. The most interesting of these is Jiovanni, who we observe climbing on the roof, bringing a knife to school and watching inappropriate movies. Despite Jiovanni’s manic and at times dangerous behaviour, it quickly becomes clear that this is a child who simply would not survive traditional school. While free school seems to heighten his exposure to danger, the frank and honest discussions he shares with his classmates are ones that will be become important in later life. As the verite style camerawork brings audiences into the classroom, it is hard not to feel a little stressed. One can only watch in amusement as the teachers experiment with their various hippie-like methods of teaching – it is certainly funny to watch when they fail.


Approaching the Elephant Movie Image
Approaching the Elephant | Antenna Documentary Film Festival | Salty Popcorn Movie Review | Movie Image


We’ve moved away from traditional education in recent years – encouraging a more individual approach to learning. For many parents however, free school would be an immediate no. After watching APPROACHING THE ELEPHANT, I’m not convinced either way. Watching the students play piano, discuss art history and build their own tree house is a refreshing juxtaposition to the madness. There is plenty to gain from ‘free school’ and while the methods are less conventional, the lessons are still very important. Similarly interesting is the absence of prescribed gender roles and ageism. Everyone’s opinion is weighted equally at ‘free school’ and girls can be just as bolshy as their male counterparts. Emergency meetings are the schools response to disagreements and these are often called and led solely by the students. The ridiculousness becomes apparent when the students call an emergency meeting after being told off for jumping off the furniture. Despite two students previously being injured, the students argue that school director Alex is to blame for being mean and not fun. As teachers and students furiously debate one struggles to see the seriousness in it all – but it’s pretty damn cute to watch.

This is an interesting and experimental film, one which will likely appeal to a very limited and particularly open minded audience. Regardless of whether you think free school is a load of hippie crap or a clever and progressive alternative, there is nothing more fascinating than watching the children interact. For that – audiences will certainly not be disappointed.


3 Pops



Kernel Emma is documentary mad and also loves foreign and arthouse movies! She is Salty’s honorary NZ writer.