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.”
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.