First, please read yesterday’s disclaimer. I’m a trip-subsidized guest of True/False, the Columbia, Missouri, documentary festival where everyone knows everyone. Audiences and filmmakers mingle at the same parties. Journalists ride the shuttle with directors and their families and hobnob with them at the Uprise Bakery. (My thanks to Team Rich Hill for helping me to find my lost glove!)
True/False prides itself on not insisting on premieres; the focus is on finding good programming and bringing it to the community. Still, one of the best films in this year’s lineup received its first showings here. Amanda Rose Wilder’s riveting Approaching The Elephant (Grade: A-) looks at the founding of the Teddy McArdle Free School in New Jersey. As the opening title cards explain, anarchists devised the “free school” model at the turn of the 20th century, reacting against the regimentation the industrial revolution had introduced into education. At a free school, kids and their teachers collectively vote on the curriculum, rules, and activities. In theory, this sort of creative learning helps with socialization, teaching the kids to work together and to understand each other as individuals.
Of course, when five-to-12-year-olds are tasked with running their own democracy, the results are not likely to be smooth. Wilder’s free-form vérité style, forgoing context and overt directorial intrusions, seems perfectly suited to a story in which even the subjects are finding their way as they go. At times, the movie—shown in black-and-white and in the Academy ratio of old public television—suggests a Frederick Wiseman version of Lord Of The Flies, or perhaps the dark side of Michael Apted’s Seven Up! Not surprisingly, the kids enjoy shop class (few things are more terrifying than watching them work with saws and hammers) and meetings for their own sake (each one wants to be that day’s leader). As various personalities assert themselves—charismatic Lucy takes charge of everything, while bully Jiovanni doesn’t play well with others—the ratio of chaos-to-learning seems alarmingly high.
“There’s a certain amount of, ‘Is this really working?’” school director Alex Khost explains to his colleagues early on. “But we probably won’t know for 20 years.” Khost finds himself torn between his commitment to the institution’s democratic ideals—on the children’s committees, he acts as if he’s equal to everyone else—and his need to preserve safety and property. At a jaw-droppingly tense meeting late in the film, he throws as much of a tantrum as any of the kids. (“I am not a therapist and I am not a punching bag!”)
Suffused with gallows humor, Approaching The Elephant slowly builds to a vote in which the students consider the expulsion of one of their own, whose long list of offenses includes drinking juice in the computer room while watching an inappropriate movie. Approaching The Elephant clearly has applications that extend beyond the classroom. But it’s gripping first and foremost as a study of a nascent group dynamic; pointedly, the kids and their teachers are never depicted off school grounds. This is social interaction in its purest form. The fact that the subjects are children merely adds a layer of distance.
The messiness of growing up is also the theme of Rich Hill (Grade: B), shot by cousins Tracy Droz Tragos and Andrew Droz Palermo in their family’s eponymous Missouri hometown. The film follows three boys—Andrew, Harley, and Appachey—as they struggle with poverty and troubled home lives, yet still dream big. The film owes a debt to the lyricism of George Washington, but it’s also rife with sociological insight. At the post-screening Q&A, Harley—whose mother is in prison and who’s seen trying to “play the sick card” in school—held court. To more than the usual degree, it was clear just how much making this film had helped the kids and their families improve their lives.
Indeed, education almost has to be seen as the major theme of the fest. Russian director Victor Kossakovsky says he conceived Demonstration (Grade: B-) as a kind of democratic exercise for his students, to show them that disparate visuals could be edited together into a coherent whole. Thirty-two of his pupils were assigned to film the austerity protests in Barcelona on March 29 and November 14 of 2012. Their footage has been scored with music from Ludwig Minkus’s Don Quixote ballet, which was playing in the city at the time. The specter of Miguel Cervantes’ hero provides an ironic counterpoint to the bedlam at hand, suggesting that there’s a wide gap between dreaming of something and achieving it. Scenes of the students working on the edit add a bit of meta-narrative.
Another collage, Concerning Violence (Grade: B-)—from The Black Power Mixtape director/assembler Göran Olsson—bills itself as an adaptation of Frantz Fanon’s landmark postcolonial text The Wretched Of The Earth. While Lauryn Hill reads Fanon’s words in voiceover, Olsson shows archival footage of various incidents throughout Africa that occurred in the two decades after the book’s publication. The movie illustrates the degree to which Fanon was both prophetic in his thinking and served as an inspiration for aspiring revolutionaries. Scenes showing maimed children and other consequences of violence are wrenching, though this is the sort of film in which concept overwhelms execution. In both Concerning Violence and Demonstration, any 20-minute stretch provides a near-representative sample of the whole.Televisual excavation of a different sort occurs in Captivated: The Trials Of Pamela Smart (Grade: C+), soon to air on HBO, which provides a look back at what some sources say was the first fully televised murder trial. The movie charges the media with tilting the case against the life-imprisoned Smart, who was accused of plotting her husband’s 1990 killing with students at a school she worked at. (Her story provided the inspiration for both the novel and film of To Die For.) Captivated makes a persuasive case for reasonable doubt even while trotting out a lot of obvious observations about the way TV sensationalizes courtroom culture; the fact that fame-seekers involved in such media circuses might have incentives to embellish; and the corruptibility of unsequestered juries. As advocacy, Captivated hits its marks. As a movie, it’s a far cry from such thornier wrongful-conviction docs as The Thin Blue Line, the Paradise Lost trilogy, and Capturing The Friedmans.