Approaching the Elephant chronicles the efforts of avant-garde teacher Alexander to set up a contentious and highly unorthodox ‘free school’ system.

Dedicated to alternative education structures and rejecting the so-called rigid restrictions which accompany more traditional teaching methods, the children choose whether to take part in classes, spend a lot of the time doing exactly what they want, and voting, along with their teacher, on exactly what they’ll do that day.

A novel approach, the ‘free school’ formula has been applied to over 200 schools, investing adolescents with greater responsibility in determining the course of their education, in this case resulting in their gradually becoming more outspoken and unwieldly. At times openly defying their teachers and breaking the few rules set in place, the adults had little recourse but to hold a vote on what to do and defiantly ask the students to stop hitting them.

Those hoping for a Lord of the Flies type scenario will be disappointed; Approaching the Elephant deals with limited and slightly escalating incidents over the students’ tenure. Told without interviews and through the quiet documentation of the classroom and its surrounds, the documentary frequently features candid insights into the students’ activities and the unusual model of school democracy.

The decision to shoot in black and white not really adding anything to the film as a whole, the most enlightening and engaging sections of the documentary are the abnormal and frequently tense school votes, ultimately coming to a head in a discomforting conclusion that will appear completely alien to anyone who went through a more traditional school system where what teacher says goes.

Most appealing to anyone with a strong investment in the education system and rendered all that more interesting by the filmmaker’s intimate access, Approaching the Elephant is at once a cautionary tale and frequently thought-provoking insight into an uncommon form of education.

Approaching The Elephant is screening at the Antenna Documentary Film Festival, which runs October 13 to 18 in Sydney.

On FilmInk