By the autumn of 2016, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton were center stage in American society. The nation would reveal its culturally combative soul, a sensational media, and the silent majority that ultimately ruled Election Day. “Free School” is the story of what was playing out “in the wings” of democracy, during this historical period of time.
In the heart of Brooklyn’s historic Clinton Hill neighborhood stands a 19th century, five-story brownstone building. A chipped gnome stands watch over purple kale wilting in a garden, a broken string of holiday lights hangs forgotten on a large tree that will flower by spring, and the sounds of an out-of-tune piano syncopate with footsteps upon a creaky staircase. This is the atmosphere of Brooklyn Free School, where youths between the ages of 6-18 receive no tests, grades, or compulsory homework. Instead, they are given the freedom to govern their own education and one another according to the basic principles of democracy.
Filmed throughout the politically charged year in which Donald Trump becomes President of the United States,“Free School” is a highly composed cinema-verité portrait of collective freedom through the lens of everyday life for K-12 students at Brooklyn Free School.
With less than 100 students at Brooklyn Free School and a sliding scale tuition, they are divided into four age groups, or “advisories”, each occupying their own floor and chosen names – the Kittens (lower elementary school), the Foxes (upper elementary school), the Elementals (middle school), and the High School. Once a week, the entire community convenes on the first floor to propose new rules, debate them, and determine their fate by a vote.
While its overall arc will be chronological, “Free School” is essentially composed of “sketches”, or shot-driven stories that inspire new impressions of characters in relation to a specific theme, question, or moment that is unique to Brooklyn Free School. Observational and nearly ethnographic in feel, every shot-driven sketch aims to illuminate what is beneath the surface as the primary engine for engagement, as opposed to explicit plot.
Even still, there are specific events and subtle plot points that bring out the subjectivity of experiences in “Free School”, juxtaposed against a politically charged year – Election Day, a sudden Pokémon craze, the school musical, the high school girls’ silent protest, senior graduation “defenses”, and even a day at the beach.
To structure these “sketches” and the overall journey, we draw upon the short story cycle – a classic literary format that presents a collection of short stories arranged with the goal of creating an elevated experience when consumed as a whole as opposed to each standalone story. Specifically, “Free School” as a short story cycle will be composed of three major parts:
Prologue (5-10 minutes): An opening sequence portrays the world in 2016 through sights and sounds in the collective conscience that establish the paradoxical nature of freedom.
Independent Sketch Stories (45-60 minutes): A series of 10-15 sketch stories depicting an aspect of everyday life at Brooklyn Free School are assembled into an emotional time capsule at a turning point in American democracy, self-directed education, and the lives of young people in Brooklyn.
Epilogue (5-10 minutes): An ending sequence portrays a new beginning, specifically that of the next school year. People return, people leave, life goes on, and a new generation has their turn.
A first-year teacher struggles with her class 6 and 7 years olds (called Kittens) who are primarily motivated by Pokémon cards. A queer, black, Muslim senior is fed up with the perceived "do-nothingness" of her male peers. An exchange student from Germany tries to make sense of the school's lack of structure.
Reminiscent of Frederick Wiseman's "High School", the film's characters are emphasized based on their context in a sketch. Some appear many times throughout the film, and others only once, all with equal weight.