The Seven-Year Long Journey Behind UNTEACHABLE – An Interview with Director Yong Shuling and Producer Lisa Teh
Unteachable details the four-year period where local teacher Ng Meixi pilots a new programme which aims to help students in Normal (Technical) stream students learn better. The programme looks to empower the students to be both learners and teachers, having to assist their classmates that have fallen behind.
I was hooked the moment I heard about the premise of Unteachable – and it’s probably the same for many others. Tickets for its screenings at this year’s Singapore International Film Festival (SGIFF) were sold out within six hours of going live. But do keep an eye out for future screenings on their website here.
For Shuling and Lisa, to bring Unteachable to life was no easy journey. Sinema.SG had the privilege to speak with them via email about their seven-year long process realizing the film, balancing their day job and their passion, and ice-cream:
How did you find out about Ng Meixi’s story?
Shuling: Meixi and I went to college at Northwestern University in Chicago together. We were catching up over lunch back in 2012 after she had returned from a trip studying education systems around the world and spending a year working with the Ministry of Education in Mexico. It was clear that her experience there was life-changing as she spoke passionately about how a different approach to teaching and learning there was transforming “underperforming” schools.
When she said she wanted to take what she had learned home to Singapore to work with students in the Normal (Technical) (NT) stream, I felt compelled to document her journey. Even though we had no idea whether things would work out, we were excited to explore what the joy of learning could look like in Singapore classrooms. We knew that regardless of outcome, we would all learn something from the journey.
What magnetized you to the subject of the documentary?
Shuling: I remember how, when I was growing up, the emphasis through my school years was always on my grades. My grades were tied to my self-worth. It was a daily grind of doing homework, studying and constant practising of past-year exam papers in preparation for the next big exam that would determine my future.
I did what I was told I was supposed to do by my parents and teachers, and coasted through school as a mediocre student who truly struggled with her second language. So when I learned about Meixi’s work to bring empathy and the joy of learning to classrooms, I was excited about the prospect of education becoming more about learning and less about grades.
Lisa: I came onto the project a little later. It started out as a casual meet-up for ice cream with Shu Ling. She had returned to Singapore after being away for a couple of years in university. She had already decided to make this documentary and was developing it at a producing workshop conducted by a friend. So I invited that friend along as well. It was then that I learned about the documentary and came on board as a producer.
So, maybe it was the topic of the documentary, or maybe it was the ice cream that pulled me in. Till this day, we still laugh about how I had unknowingly set up my own meeting to attach myself to the project.
Both of you worked together for the documentary Growing Roots. How different was the production process between that and Unteachable?
Lisa: What was similar for both films is that we had the privilege to meet equally amazing people, and have the honour of telling their stories! As for the differences, Growing Roots was commissioned work, so we had some budget to hire a director of photography (DP) and a sound person, whereas for Unteachable, which is an independent project, Shu Ling filmed most of it herself and I helped out with sound whenever my schedule allowed.
Growing Roots had a tighter production schedule and a clear completion date to meet broadcast demands – everything was done and dusted after 9 months (much like giving birth). For Unteachable, the project took longer than expected. We had initially intended to film for only 2 years, but the story evolved and we stuck to it.
Shuling: We also made Growing Roots as part of a larger series called Singapore Stories, alongside four other films, and thus had to keep the content style somewhat aligned with the others. Since Unteachable is an independent film production, we had the freedom to make it the way we wanted and take the time to make it right.
For example, we spent significantly more time filming for Unteachable using the cinéma vérité style that involved more observation of everyday lives with minimal intervention. This enabled us to capture some really great, authentic moments that we otherwise wouldn’t have been able to on the tight schedule we had for Growing Roots.
What were the main hurdles in the making of Unteachable?
Shuling: As with most productions, the main challenges were time and money. Both of us have to juggle ‘day-jobs’, which are helping us survive in the world, and with the making of this documentary. Unlike narrative films, where most of the funds are secured before principal photography starts, in the documentary, the story doesn’t wait for you. So we had to go film while actively applying for grants and seeking donations.
Lisa: I had to take leaves to go for shoots and take meetings with the school, teachers, parents and partners. There were call times as early as 4AM, where we travelled from the northeast of Singapore (where we lived), to the west to film in the school, and then all the way back to the office for my 9 – 6 job, and then meet Shu Ling again afterwards at night to work on the documentary some more. Sometimes, I also had to make use of my lunch hour to attend meetings for the documentary. Those were crazy times.
How have the students grown throughout the entire process?
Shuling: It was quite a privilege to be able to spend several years with the teachers and students. Over time, we noticed growth in student confidence levels, less fear around making mistakes and stronger bonds between students and teachers.
Were there any resistance from the students’ parents who were against their children being a part of the documentary? How were these issues handled?
Lisa: It was challenging to build those relationships as it was a big investment of time. We had one-to-one meetings with the parents to introduce ourselves and the documentary, as well as show them the footage we had taken. We also invited them to view work-in-progress material.
Shuling: It was important to us that during those in-person meetings, we explained the larger purpose of the documentary, the role their children would have in getting important messages across that could have a positive impact on society, and also distinguished our work from stories they might have seen on daily news sites. We made sure to let them know that they could reach out to us at any time with questions.
The documentary took about seven years to complete. What kept the both of you going?
Both: Making this documentary is definitely a marathon and not a sprint. And we wouldn’t say that it’s completed. Making the film is only half the journey. Now, is the next part – getting it out there and using the film to generate an impact.
We hope the documentary will inspire teachers and educators to come together and build networks to support one another, share ideas and take bold steps to draw out that innate love for learning from their students. For parents, let’s have a conversation with our children that isn’t just all about how much did you score, have you finished your homework. But ask what did you learn today that you enjoyed? Why was it interesting?
We are very grateful to the people around us who supported and challenged us. We couldn’t have done it without their help and encouragement – from those in the industry that have paved the way for us, and who shared their experience with us, to our partners who offered their generous support.
We are also grateful to the students and teachers who allowed us to document their journeys, and don’t take that responsibility lightly. We hope they feel proud to see their stories out there. We also want other teachers and students to be able to see stories like their own on the big screen, and feel both seen and inspired.
With both screenings sold out within hours, it is clear that the subject matter is something that resonates with a lot of Singaporeans. What do you think the public can do to break the stigmatisation of Normal (Technical) stream students?
Shuling: Be conscious that we really don’t know what it is like to be in other peoples’ shoes. We don’t know what challenges and responsibilities they have to deal with on a daily basis, or what obstacles stand in their way that are the result of the way society is structured.
Stigma comes from a lack of awareness and understanding, and documentary films are powerful for building empathy and understanding. We hope it will help bring us all just that much closer together. Keep an open mind, a listening ear, an empathetic heart, and maybe we’ll realise that we all have a lot more in common than we think.
Are there any plans to screen Unteachable after SGIFF?
Both: Yes, we are working on making the film available to more audiences. If you’d like to bring the film to your community, you can host a screening! Get in touch with us through our website and follow us on Facebook for updates on future screenings.
What is next for the both of you?
Lisa: We’re working on bringing Unteachable beyond the shores of Singapore. I am also really happy to be still involved in creating content that is related to the area of education. I write and work with freelance writers on pre-school edutainment TV programmes.
Shuling: I’m continuing to work in the field of social issue documentary film mainly doing cinematography and location sound recording, while working on getting Unteachable seen internationally. I am also in early development on a documentary exploring themes of identity and sense of belonging for people who have moved away from their hometowns.
Check out Sinema’s review of the documentary here.