In a parent-teacher meeting with a distraught mother, a teacher is exposed to a world she readily empathises with. But where does the truth lie?

Denise Khng’s powerful short film, “Motherland,” delves into the delicate interplay between truth and the roles society imposes upon us. Set in a Singaporean girls’ school, the film follows a parent-teacher meeting where a compassionate teacher connects with a distressed mother, who shares her struggles as a long-suffering parent to a troubled teenager. However, as the story unfolds, viewers are prompted to question the authenticity of these roles in a system that demands conformity.

In “Motherland,” Khng expertly captures the complexities of identity within the parent-teacher dynamic, challenging the notion of truth and shedding light on the impact of societal expectations. The film raises thought-provoking questions about the extent to which individuals can remain true to themselves when confined by predetermined roles. With its compelling narrative and emotional depth, “Motherland” invites audiences to reflect on the nuanced nature of truth and the profound influence of the roles we are made to play in society. We had the opportunity to ask Denise a few questions about the film, make sure to read her enriching answers below.

What was the inspiration behind creating this short film, “Motherland”?

In Singapore, good behaviour, particularly obedience, is used as a marker for what a ‘good person’ is—but the two are not synonymous, and any overlap is subject to intention; it is especially difficult to distinguish between them in a highly obedient and infantilised society (preschool-friendly posters in trains coddle grown adults to offer their seats to others) where aphorisms and platitudes feed into the lines that authorial figures espouse with unconscious and automated ease. These social beliefs and behavioural codes are parroted and taken as universal truths, in a national culture that relies bluntly on external markers of right and wrong, good and bad.

In a society built upon filial piety, a ‘Mother’ is commercially and governmentally marketed as ‘good’, ‘long-suffering’, ‘self-sacrificial’—impressions devoid of personal agency. If her intentions defer from the trope, the role renders her children accessories to its status—so that neither she nor they are seen for who they truly are and what they truly need.

For children raised by parents who are themselves deeply damaged and emotionally stunted, the reality of domestic abuse easily goes unseen as the socially curated roles of parent and child are held to maintain an ecosystem of power carried by both public and familial figures of authority, where benefit of the doubt for the child is clouded by presumptions of archetypal parent-child dynamics. Abrasive parental communication is excused as a cultural norm, reasoned as an indicator of parental hardship, suffering that deserves repayment in care by one’s young—a transactional agreement of unconditional duty that resists nuance, depth, and an individual’s autonomy, while facilitating the enablement of abusive parenting and the continuation of generational abuse.

I’ve always wanted to make a film that reframes maternal piety in a way that could resonate with children (and adults) from dysfunctional and abusive households, especially those who are unable to speak up or who are not believed. I hope any solidarity gained from the film helps them find the strength to stay true to themselves and come to know their intrinsic worth.

How did you come up with the title for the film, and what does it signify?

The title references Singapore as a literal motherland—place of birth, home country. The idea of being born into a specific society that is attached to a specific set of belief systems. The other meaning of the title: a land where the mother holds power over the individual.

The film explores the challenges faced by parents and teachers in a system that expects them to uphold certain roles. What message were you trying to convey through this theme?

When people are viewed more through the boundaries of their external roles—as parent, teacher, student—there is a constant pressure to meet the expectations of others, meeting them then trying not to fall short. Teachers have the power to change the course of a student’s future by grading them, enforcing discipline, etc. Becoming, to an extent, an arbiter of rightness. But how well do we truly know a person? And what are the ethics of acting upon that power, especially if disciplinary actions are to be taken?

In the film, Mrs Reema’s purpose involves setting her students on the right path to certain measurable success. In living up to the expectations of her role, she sacrifices vulnerability for the certainty of moral resolve and the simplicity of moral resolution—which hampers her ability to view Sarah and Mother outside of those matrices, and beyond the limitations of her own life experiences.

To be taken at face value, all Mother has to do is look the part and say the right things; verbalising worry almost guarantees an assumption that a parent has taken an equivalent measure of action, has carried out an equivalent weight of responsibilities, even if that may be untrue. A more perceptive listener might recognise that Mother’s true frustrations don’t necessarily stem from the events she is describing—that Sarah is both the trigger and collateral to root causes predating motherhood. They might see instead that Mother is a person whose inner child is traumatised—and her emotional development has been arrested to the extent that she is, in essence, a wounded child in an adult’s body, whose words and actions bear adult consequences, with adult responsibilities. Parenthood is a task she does not have the emotional capacity or maturity to take on. If Mother and Sarah had been seen for who they are without their roles, would Mrs Reema have taken a different approach?

The film takes place in an orderly girls’ school in Singapore. How did you select this setting, and what significance does it hold in the film?

I think a school system can be viewed as a microcosm of the more regimented aspects of Singapore society. There is the requisite obedience to rules and hierarchy, and disciplinary consequences to breaking them. Grades and accolades are utilised as measures of a young person’s worth, a precursor to how an adult is materially and empirically valued in that same society. In such a system, there doesn’t seem to be a recognition of inherent worth in the way people are seen. I set the film in a girls’ school to highlight the generational nature of maternal authority. Hence too, the ascending ages of the characters. Both Mother and Mrs Reema are products of the same system; at some point in their youth, they’ve absorbed a template of ideals—what it means to be a ‘well-behaved’, and on a communal scale, a ‘good citizen’—which has detracted from the integrity of their intuition in favour of the expectations of others (including perhaps the wishes and values of their own parents), delimited the life choices they’ve made to varying degrees, and compromised the depth to which they view others.

The setting also presents how conformity and regiment mask more spirited expressions of self. Sarah was written as a prefect because the position requires one to model obedience and facilitate it—she participates as a gatekeeper in a system of order and decorum. The small moment of irreverence between Sarah and the other prefect is the only scene where two people are genuinely connecting with each other.

On a separate note, the relative stability of a school environment can provide some respite to children from chaotic homes and potentially allow them the space to thrive away from their parents. Sarah’s world at school is the part of her life she is most personally invested in, upon which she stakes her future as well as aspects of herself that cannot exist at home. While the entry of Mother into that environment becomes a threat, the public space of the school provides a level of safety in the sense that behaviour is reined in, limiting how far an altercation can escalate.

The film touches upon the concept of “true character” and how it can be difficult to maintain when playing a certain role. How important is this theme in the film, and how did you explore it?

I love how you’ve termed it “true character”. It ties into the idea of concealing one’s truest vulnerabilities with safer ones. How much of ourselves do we constrain and inhibit in order to adapt to the expectations of how we are perceived by others, especially expectations of what is considered good behaviour? When the balance of our public and private worlds is at stake, what are the truths we choose to hide about ourselves?

The characters in “Motherland” aren’t so much connecting as they are coping with each other: Mrs Reema has to maintain a level of formality when dealing with both students and parents in a professional capacity. Meanwhile, Sarah cannot afford to display anger or frustration or assert herself in the presence of Mrs Reema, for she risks being seen as a problem child. To speak the truth would be to rock the boat—people are more sceptical at the prospect of an abusive parent than the prospect of a difficult child or rebellious teen, especially if they know or have interacted with the parent. For Mother, veracity is not an accurate enough measure of the turmoil she feels inside; she fears that truth is not enough for someone else to see her pain and understand it—to see her, to understand her—thus her account has to be distorted and embellished and subverted to match the intensity of her emotions. The magnitude of what she feels has to be seen and felt by others (not least by her daughter), even if it comes at the expense of her daughter, and fundamentally, at the expense of truth.

How did you work with the actors to bring their characters to life and portray the emotions and struggles they were going through?

As a primer, I gave Karen (Mother) and Shi-An (Sarah) an overlap of material on Borderline/Cluster B dynamics, as well as interview clips of several public profiles to observe if there were any vocal or body language indications signifying a separate, indirect motive to what these profiles were saying. By the time rehearsals began, they’d each already filled in the gaps in their characters’ stories—though they didn’t detail to each other what they each thought Mother and Sarah’s backstory was (I didn’t exactly elaborate on that for them either). Both actors therefore played off each other with two potentially dissimilar versions of what happened the night before the parent-teacher meeting, which mirrors the dissonance in Mother and Sarah’s accounts of each other.

Crucially, they’re naturally empathic and very emotionally intuitive actors. Karen had the challenge of tapping into her character’s chronic sense of worthlessness and fear of abandonment—and then projecting that outwards in a continual grasping for an external response. This included her use of eye contact and loud noises as attempts to ‘pull’ the other party in. In contrast, Shi-An had to hold back her emotions as far as possible, to refrain from displaying any emotional vulnerability, as a form of resistance against authorial control—it’s a different kind of torment that becomes increasingly difficult to contain.

It was serendipitous too that Nora (Mrs Reema) used to be Shi-An’s teacher in a theatre class, which made it really interesting to watch their dynamic transform whenever they got into character. As a theatre veteran and educator, Nora understood intimately the challenges of being a teacher and how adapting to those pressures has shaped Mrs Reema into who the character she has become. Nora really leaned into the quality of old-school propriety the character possesses—she slipped into the role instantly.

What was the most rewarding aspect of making this film for you?

Making it with a wonderful cast and crew, without whom this film wouldn’t be possible. All of them sacrificed their time and day rates to help make this project come to life. The fact that the shoot even took place was nothing short of a miracle, considering Covid restrictions were still in place at the time; there was only one school location that was open to filming, and we were only able to shoot there thanks to the very persuasive efforts of our producer, Yash M. The opportunity to work on something without creative conditions or restrictions, with people who are passionate and dedicated to their craft, is something I’ll always be grateful for.

Which films you can say directly inspired this film?

The cinematography was inspired by Pablo Larrain’s Jackie and Vincent Lambe’s Detainment. Other stylistic influences were past televised National Day Rally speeches and Princess Diana’s Panorama interview, hence the classic 4:3 aspect ratio for the classroom scenes—to play upon the idea of being observed and performing a public role; how an awareness of an audience shapes the way a story is told. Our DP, Khairul Amin, made subtle differentiations to the framing of each character’s main shot in the classroom according to the power (im)balances in those scenes.

What are your favorite short films?

He Took His Skin Off For Me (Watch on FS) by Ben Aston and Maria Hummer. Faubourg Saint-Denis by Tom Tykwer. Let Her Eat Cake by Nelicia Low.