Ah, good ole summer camp. Every summer being dropped off at camp, I was instantly homesick and scared to go, but by the end, I was full of lifelong memories. That said, Ellen Moore’s documentary, The High Rock, is about a camp like none I ever attended. Cool Camp is part of Katherine Michiels’ private elementary school in San Francisco, and the annual event is included in her summer program.
The camp I went to was an actual campground, and I stayed in cabins, ate at mess halls, and sang songs by an open fire in an amphitheater. Cool Camp is a spot in the Sierras to put up tents and sleep on large tarps. You know, basic camping. The twenty or so campers and a small handful of adults arrive in a large van, set up shop, and let the fun begin.
While my camp had structure and a schedule, Cool Camp’s routine was simple — get kids out of the city and interacting with nature. Most of the documentary sees campers playing in the nearby stream, exploring the surrounding area, and just having fun. It is all about getting wet, being messy, and learning to work together.
“…Cool Camp’s routine was simple — get kids out of the city and interacting with nature.”
The best way to describe the action of The High Rock is “kids frolicking in nature.” But there’s much more subtext than that. Shot in the 1990s, the director harkens back to a time when kids were kids, and life lessons were found in nature. Most importantly, everything was learned on the young one’s own. I remember, as a child, my parents would take us to the forest or lake. Then, they’d just let us go and explore. As a parent today, letting my kid just wander wherever scares the hell out of me, even though kids have GPS on their phones.
I get this sense that Michiels believes that kids learn best when their natural curiosity is fed and that grown-ups are there to facilitate their understanding. In one segment, some kids are having trouble climbing a tree, and the response was that maybe you’re not ready for that tree. Helping them up (or doing it for them) was viewed as a hindrance to growth. The opening features a young girl considering whether she should dive off “the high rock” into the water below, and you can see the battle waged in her mind about whether to do it.
If you want to reduce The High Rock into a simple tagline, it’d be “kids living in nature.” That’s pretty much how you could describe every sequence. But it’s much more than that. Every scene is about kids thriving — physically, mentally, and socially. Also, I’m not saying the children were in danger in any way, but there was undoubtedly a risk of falling, scraping a knee, or getting a cut/bruise. But isn’t this a part of life as well? How much can we as adults protect our children from literally everything that might cause the smallest amount of pain?
As a documentary, I have to give kudos to Moore. She turned footage of kids at camp in nature into a highly reflective story instead of a collection of vacation videos. There is minimal narration from former campers and adult leaders reminiscing about their time at Cool Camp. If anything, The High Rock serves as a call to us city-dwellers to get outdoors again.
The High Rock screened at the 2022 SF DocFest.
For screening information, visit The High Rock official website.
"…serves as a call to us city-dwellers to get outdoors again."