×

SGIFF: ‘Unteachable’ Explores New Facets of Singapore’s Education System

Singapore is renowned for its education system, which is highly successful, but also rigid and stressful. Singapore-born, Chicago-based documentarian Yong Shu Ling’s “Unteachable” explores the joy of learning through a young woman’s journey to bring empathy back into classrooms. She introduces a new teaching method aimed at empowering teenagers to overcome negatives, and rekindle a love for learning.

(Update: On Dec. 1, it was announced that “Unteachable” had won the audience award at SGIFF.)

“Sometimes with documentary film, you chance upon a story so compelling that you simply can’t allow it to go undocumented,” Yong told Variety. “My friend from university, Meixi had spent a year working with the Ministry of Education in Mexico and spoke very passionately about what she had learned and how she had witnessed the transformation of ‘underperforming’ schools. When she said she wanted to take her findings back to Singapore, to work with students who were struggling in the mainstream system, I was very excited about it.”

“Meixi’s work and its potential to shift the focus in the classroom towards the joy of learning and away from grades, while also building empathy between students and teachers, all sounded very exciting to me,” said Yong. “Too often, grades are tied to our self-worth and I just think it’s not healthy to grow up that way. Even though I had no idea what the outcome of her work would be, I knew it would be worth documenting because we could all learn something from the journey.”

Popular on Variety

Perhaps the best-known film revolving around the Singapore education system is Jack Neo’s seminal 2002 feature “I Not Stupid.” “Even though I have respect for the work that Jack Neo does and the impact that ‘I Not Stupid’ had on society when it was released, it was not an influence on how we made ‘Unteachable’,” said Yong.

Instead, the filmmaker sought inspiration in documentary films on education like 2010’s “Waiting for ‘Superman” and 2011’s “The Learning.” The project also received guidance from experienced Singapore documentarian and the film’s executive producer Tan Pin Pin, who Yong had previously worked with on “In Time To Come.”

Adding heft to “Unteachable” is producer Lisa Teh, a story editor for preschool television programs at animation company, Omens Studios. Her credits as producer and co-director include 2015’s “Growing Roots,” a television documentary on the growing urban farming culture in Singapore.

“Raising money to make the film was a big challenge,” said Yong. “Because Meixi’s work was happening in real time, we could not wait around to raise the full budget of the film before starting production, unlike in the process of making scripted films. I had to grab my camera to start filming or we’d lose the story. Also, as first-time feature filmmakers, Lisa and I are not part of any wealthy or influential social circles, so we chose to go the route of grant-based writing and pitching forums. Juggling production while also applying for grants and seeking donations, all while working full-time day jobs, was very challenging.”

The project was eventually selected for Good Pitch South East Asia where it was connected to social empowerment organization, the Jia Foundation, that raised further finance and helped build partnerships.

“Unteachable” has its world premiere at the Singapore International Film Festival on Tuesday. After that, the filmmakers will take it to educators in Singapore via school screenings and discussions.

Yong is now in early development on a documentary exploring themes of identity and sense of belonging for people who have moved away from their hometowns.

More Film

  • Fernando Szew and Tomas Yankelevich

    Particular Crowd, MarVista Set 10-Plus Movies a Year Partnership (EXCLUSIVE)

    MIAMI — Particular Crowd, the big new film banner of Warner Media’s Turner Latin America, and MarVista Entertainment, one of the world’s biggest and ambitious of independent entertainment studios, have announced a multi-year production slate deal. As part of the deal, Particular Crowd and MarVista will target production of 10-plus films per year, focusing on elevated [...]

  • Andy Serkis

    BAFTA to Honor Andy Serkis

    The British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) is presenting Andy Serkis with its Outstanding British Contribution to Cinema Award at the 73rd EE British Academy Film Awards ceremony on Feb. 2 in London. The organization said Thursday that it was honoring the British actor, producer and director for his pioneering work on performance [...]

  • The Olympic Rings adorn an event

    Tokyo Olympics Brings Upheaval to Japan's Summer Events Schedule

    The Tokyo Olympics, to be held from July 24 to Aug. 9, and Paralympics, scheduled for Aug. 25 to Sept. 9, are affecting Japan’s big summer events. Everything from fireworks displays to music festivals have chosen to shift dates or even cancel altogether. The only film festival so far to announce a change in dates [...]

  • The Rescue

    Overseas Releases of Chinese Films to be Cancelled Following Virus Outbreak

    The overseas release of Chinese films in the next weeks is certain to be affected by the cancellation of theatrical outings in mainland China as a response to the rampant spread of the coronavirus. On Thursday, movie companies in China announced they would not go ahead with the release of seven major films at Chinese [...]

  • Boris JohnsonConservative Party rally on eve

    U.K. Parliament Passes Brexit Law, Leaving Film, TV Incentives Unaffected

    The U.K. Parliament on Wednesday evening passed legislation paving the way for the country to leave the European Union on Jan. 31, 2020. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said the U.K. had “crossed the Brexit finish line” following passage of the Withdrawal Agreement, which will officially become law when it receives royal assent from Queen [...]

  • A security guard wears a mask

    Chinese New Year Film Releases Cancelled in Response to Coronavirus

    The deadly coronavirus outbreak has dealt a fatal blow to China’s biggest movie-going weekend of the year, as all new releases were cancelled to prevent further spread of the disease. Seven major films were expected to have been released over the coming weekend, with the likelihood that together they would have earned more than $1 [...]

  • The Turning

    Film Review: ‘The Turning’

    Director Floria Sigismondi’s “The Turning” is like the alt-rock cousin of author Henry James’ novella “The Turn of the Screw.” From its grunge-infused soundtrack and period setting to its fiery feminist overtones, this is an ambitious contemporary take on the iconic, claustrophobic thriller. Concerning two young orphans who psychologically torment their caretaker in a spooky, [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content