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Funding a film, social networking style

Clock is ticking for Marlboro graduate's efforts to raise $14,500 to complete documentary on a free school in New Jersey

BRATTLEBORO—Amanda Wilder has been working on her documentary since 2007 and is facing an ever-tightening financial environment in the current recession.

So the Marlboro College graduate is trying a new funding source to complete the film.

At the suggestion of Jay Craven, her teacher at Marlboro and the producer of the film, she has turned to an inventive online fundraising method called Kickstarter, which lets creative people from photographers to writers to filmmakers like Wilder seek people to donate money to get a project off the ground.

As of last week, Wilder has received pledges from Kickstarter users of more than $10,000 of the $14,500 she will need to complete Approaching the Elephant, a feature-length documentary about the Teddy McArdle Free School in Little Falls, N.J.

As Wilder describes it, a free school is a place where “classes are optional and rules are made by democratic vote.”

That’s democratic vote, as in the students get an equal say in the process.

Approximately 200 such schools operate in the U.S.

Wilder says her first feature-length documentary “chronicles a free school in the making.”

She describes the documentary as “an intimate portrait of a small group of people from a range of educational backgrounds, [who] come together to forge a place where children are treated as equals, at liberty to spend their days however they please.”

Approaching the Elephant documents the complete lifespan of one such free school.

The documentary spans two years, “from Teddy McArdle’s first day when there were no rules or classes, through the changing of the school’s director and the expulsion of a student by democratic vote, to the last day of the second year when the school closed.”

Working in the filmmaking style of her role models Albert and David Maysles, who were team directors of such documentary classics as Showman and Grey Gardens, Wilder employs “the observational mode,” where the cinematographer shoots footage with a minimum of interruption or intervention, stepping back to let the action play out as if the camera were not there.

Wilder began filming from the very first day of classes of the Teddy McArdle Free School, but she soon came to realize that it would take a long time to capture a complete picture of what was happening there.

So she ended up staying the whole two years the school was open, shooting 230 hours of film which must now be edited.

According to Craven, an average documentary is edited from about 70 hours of raw footage.

Craven, who believes that Wilder might now be too close to the material to be able to edit the film herself, encouraged her to get the services of another professional editor.

So Wilder found Kamila Calabrese, an editor very committed to the project since she herself had a child in the McArdle school.

As Wilder reports on her Kickstarter fundraising page, “a very generous grant of $12,000 from The Bay and Paul Foundation got us through production. The footage has been digitized.

“Kamila Calabrese has edited a rough cut of the first 20 hours, the first week of school,” Wilder writes. “Jay [and I] are happy with this initial cut and want Kamila to work with [me] to edit the footage into a 90-minute piece.”

The Kickstarter funds will pay for this editing process.

Kickstarter characterizes itself as “the world’s largest funding platform for creative projects.” It has gained popularity in the past couple of years as a way to “crowdsource” funding.

Raising the funds

According to Kickstarter’s rules, a project “must reach its funding goal before time runs out, or no money changes hands. This way, no one is expected to develop a project with an insufficient budget. Projects can always raise more than their goal, and often do.”

An artist like Wilder sets her own funding goal, so she aims to raise the minimum amount needed to create a vision.

Those using the service often give incentives to encourage people to join at higher levels and also encourage investors to get intimately involved in projects.

In Wilder’s case, each level of donation comes with a special reward. The pledge categories range from $1 to $10,000, each pledge level offering benefits.

For instance, a pledge of $5 or more comes with an Approaching the Elephant postcard and a personal thank-you note.

Donors of $25 will get a DVD of the completed film. A $45 donation gets a donor a special-edition version with interviews and deleted scenes.

A pledge of $350 places the donor’s name in the documentary credits under “special thanks,” a limited edition poster, an invitation to an early screening, and more.

Big-ticket donors are offered premiums like an invitation to a New York premiere, dinner with the filmmakers, signed copies of the DVD, and other gestures of appreciation.

Marlboro connection

Wilder might be a Brooklyn filmmaker and the Teddy McArdle Free School might have been located in New Jersey, but in many ways the making of Approaching the Elephant is a southern Vermont story.

Wilder’s interest in free-school methods began as early as the fifth grade when her father took her to visit the Summerhill School, a free school in England.

But only when she came to Marlboro College did she experience this kind of learning firsthand.

She thrived in Marlboro’s educational environment, where she helped construct her own curriculum, double majoring in film and literature. The title of her senior thesis, “The Poetic in Documentary and the Documentary in the Poetic,” describes a dualism that she likes to use to characterize her work in general.

It was her mentor at Marlboro, Jay Craven, who suggested free schooling as a topic for a feature documentary.

The Vermont filmmaker has been touched by alternative education most of his life.

He went to a Quaker school from the first to fourth grade, and while a Quaker school is not a free school per se, it does work from a similarly democratic model of education.

From 1975 to 1980, Craven worked at the Peacham School in the Northeast Kingdom and has taught at Marlboro since 1998. He says both schools have “educational rigor, but are student-centered.”

He believes Wilder is “an exceptional, gifted filmmaker” capable of the “poetic expression,” to do justice to the subject of free school education.

A video of Wilder describing the project is available on the Kickstarter site, where a reader can also find detailed descriptions of the work, biographies of the principals, and the ways people can help support the funding of the documentary.

Wilder has also made movies about the Estey Organ Company, panic, dancers (including her mother), Burlington’s two-week 400th anniversary celebration, textile embroiderer Richard Saja, poet Mary Jo Salter, a girl home-schooled on a farm, Occupy Wall Street, and the Twelve Tribes. She has shot footage for a variety of companies, including Maysles Films.

As of last week, the project needs $4,260 by Jan. 10 for any of the funds to be released.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #132 (Wednesday, December 21, 2011).

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