Insightful and Bittersweet, Unteachable Is an Ode to Singapore’s Often-Forgotten Dreamers
Unteachable follows teacher Meixi as she tries out Tutorial Relationships, a novel teaching method from Mexico, in Normal-Technical Stream classes in Singapore. It captures the learning journeys of teenagers over a 4-year school period through to their graduation, giving a rare insight into their lives, fears of past failures, dreams for the future, and awareness of their place in society.
Director: Yong Shuling
Language: English, Chinese, Malay, Tamil
Runtime: 77 minutes
A teacher draws a few equations and explains to the class what is on the board. Secondary Two student Damian is perplexed, asking whether his answer is correct as his teacher walks past.
“Wrong? Method wrong or answer wrong?” Damian asks but it’s too late; his question is left hanging. His teacher has already moved on to the next student.
This snippet of a scene, succinctly capturing the systemic difficulties Singaporean students face with educational care and attention, opens Singaporean documentary Unteachable. Insightful and bittersweet, the film is a powerful call for change told in brevity.
The film details teacher Ng Meixi’s journey as she implements a new system of learning for a class of Normal (Technical) students, focused on peer-to-peer tutorage rather than with every lesson being top-down, teacher-directed. It is through this system that Meixi and her colleagues hope to imbue a love for learning in students that society tends to label as ‘hopeless’ and ‘unteachable’.
One of these students, Damian, is a central subject of the documentary. Established early is his eagerness to learn and the difficulties he faces to succeed academically, such as the lack of opportunities, resources, and the right methods. Unteachable then details, throughout the span of two years, how the programme changes Damian and his classmates’ attitude towards learning.
Providing tension for the documentary is the looming future of its students. Unteachable makes a point through one-to-one interviews to highlight how the students and their teachers are aware that while their future is still up in the air, they do know that it is already filled with closed doors – because of some numbers they received at twelve years old.
Damian and his friends have dreams – be it of being a chef or of being singers. But to hear them describe with such grounded pragmatism – despite their age – how they are aware that those dreams will probably remain dreams is heartbreaking. Familiar for sure but nevertheless crushing.
Yet within those murky themes, drive and hope shines on. Matching Damian’s enthusiasm is Meixi’s drive to see her students succeed, as she juggles between sharpening the programme and trying to convince her colleagues that it is all worth implementing. Her passion is crystal clear, shining through in her monologues and vlog-style scenes.
It all sounds so heavy but I think Unteachable is really a film that wants to celebrate the ever-fleeting moments of youth. Through director Yong Shu Ling’s usage of the cinéma vérité style, Unteachable offers a slice of comforting relatability at every turn. Its premise – and years of footage – allows for the playfulness and quirkiness of the students to naturally shine and appeal to its audience’s nostalgia of their salad days.
The same style feels mesmerising when used on the adults of the film. They may be more aware of how they should act and what they should say in front of a camera but their passion betrays their facade as they discuss and deliberate what is best for their students.
Complementing it all is the documentary’s short run-time and handy explanations of contexts for international audiences. Brevity is the soul of wit and to cut down years of footage throughout the two-year-long journey into a little over an hour is a testament of remarkable focus and editing.
Most Singaporeans hate their educational system – with how it stigmatises and labels children, and closes doors for young dreamers. Unteachable reminds its audience that there are children unfairly labelled despite their eagerness to learn, that those unteachables have dreams too. Singapore will always need documentaries and films like Unteachable – especially of this care and quality – to motivate for worthwhile change.
Unteachable will be screening on 26 and 30 November, but all tickets have sold out! Keep an eye out here for future screenings – don’t miss the chance to catch this documentary.
In the meantime, watch the trailer:
Check back here tomorrow for our interview with director Yong Shuling and producer Lisa Teh!