A disturbing incident took place in the orderly city of Singapore. A group of young friends were swimming in a city lake. When one of them began drowning, a girl ran to several people and tried to get help. No one wanted to get involved. This sad Singaporean incident, which has a human dimension, haunted American director Marc X. Grigoroff and became the source of a new film.

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As an American, how did you approach a story about Singapore?

No matter what, I’m always going to be an outsider in Singapore. I’ve lived there for 11 years but will always be an expat, an American living in Singapore. I’ve accepted it and am fine with it. So when I was writing this film about Singapore, I wanted feedback. When actors auditioned, I asked: “Do you think the motivations of some of the people involved [in the drowning incident] were based on race?” It was validating my observations and parts of the culture.

There are four languages in Salawati. How did you overcome communication barriers?

It was a bit crazy. I didn’t have a professional translator. I wrote the script in English and I love dialogue in films. I wanted the dialogue to be as natural as possible. So, I went to my actors and said, “I want you to say this in Malay, not the way you hear it on the less-than-realistic TV dramas, but how you would talk in your home.” To a point, I could just hear what sounded natural. My actors would discuss it and work together organically until it sounded really natural. It was a challenging process.

Salawati presents three distinct ethnic groups, which seem so separate but also interact in a significant way. What do you make of this social structure?

The fact is, Singapore is made up of primarily three racial divisions. Chinese, Malay, and Tamil. There’s a very diverse racial mix and it’s reflected in the culture, arts, food. I’ve always been excited by these differences and that side of Singapore is extremely dynamic. But, just below the surface, there is a sense of divisions. Anytime you have ethnic groups, there is a sense of identity so there is also going to be a sense of separateness—not exclusiveness. In any case, when I started to write the film, in my mind the little girl was Malay and that’s the way the story developed. I really did not set out to show a sense of division, but it naturally arose because I think this is the sort of divisions we have in Singapore.

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What has been your own experience living in Singapore?

When I lived in Japan, I was an American. In Singapore, I am a Caucasian. In Japan I was a foreigner, but in Singapore I’m defined by my race. There was an article in a local Malay newspaper about the film and the headline said, “White Man Does Malay Film.” I was laughing because you just couldn’t write that way in the states. It was honest without being judgmental. Race is such a sensitive issue in the states— justifiably so—but sometimes we have to be so careful about how we approach it and that can hinder the process of healing.