Writer-director Sandi Tan’s bio reads like an anime heroine. Born in Singapore, where chewing gum is outlawed and family expectations confining, teenager Sandi led a subversive life immersed in the rad, forbidden culture of Singapore. At the prodigious age of 14, she wrote for “Big O”, a magazine of Singapore’s underground rock scene. At 16, she started her own zine “The Exploding Cat” with best friend Jasmine Ng. It attracted a cult following; they received fan letters from New York, London, Paris, Jerusalem, even from prisons. But that’s not the exciting part. At the ripe old age of 19, Sandi made the first indie road movie of Singapore, with a few devoted cinephiles and curious onlookers.
It all began when an enigmatic American expat called Georges Cardona arriving in Singapore and started a film class attended by mostly 18 and 19 year-old girls. Sandi started Georges’ class with great aspirations. He took her and a few other gals under his wings, went on night drives after class and introduced them to the French New Wave.
In the summer of 1992, energized by youthful zeal, Sandi made a movie called “Shirkers” with people from her filmmaking class, a remarkable feat. She wrote the script and played the main role, a 16 years-old assassin called “S”. Her best friend Jasmine was editor; another friend Sophie Siddique was producer, and Georges, the director. Sophie as executive producer wrote a letter to Kodak and received all film supplies free. How they rounded up supporting actors and extras, location scouts, sound and techs was an endeavour only youthful verve would attempt.
After the completion of the filming, Sandi and her friends left Singapore for University; she went to England, Jasmine to New York, and Sophie to L.A. Georges remained in Singapore. And that was when the girls lost contact with him. None of them had seen any of the footage, and Jasmine had all the intention to return after school term to do editing work. Georges had disappeared without a trace and taken with him all the 16mm reels of their “Shirkers” film. A large chunk of the girls’ life had gone missing, especially Sandi’s, who had put her heart and soul into the venture, and who, on her own, had gone on a road trip in America with Georges, by then her best friend, a man twice her age with a wife and kid.
With Georges’s mysterious exit, the filmmaking dream of the clan had all but vanished into thin air. After finishing university in England, Sandi went back to Singapore and wrote for Singapore’s Straits Times as a film critic, apparently a dream detoured. Yet life went on. A few years later she proceeded to NYC for film school at Columbia University and later settled in the U.S. She had since made a couple of short films and written a novel, The Black Isle (Hachette USA), which was well received. But at the back of her mind, she could not forget “Shirkers”. Then, twenty-five years later, that fateful day arrived.
Without giving out spoilers, somehow events led to the recovery of the complete “Shirkers” in its original condition in 70 canisters of 16mm film, together with storyboards, scripts, mementos and props used in the production. An amazing turn.
The present documentary is not only about the creative process in filmmaking by a group of young enthusiasts, but also a chronicle of a period in Singapore’s social and cinematic history. What’s more, Sandi Tan’s feature could well kick off something like the #MeToo Movement, not about sexual advantage taken by the powerful, but about adults in mentoring positions toying with the hopes and dreams of their protégé, about the betrayal of trust and the robbing of rightful ownership of creative endeavours. But of course, Georges could well be just a deeply disturbed soul shirking from real life challenges and responsibilities.
Shirkers the documentary is a cinematic collage of 16mm film, digital, Super 8, slides, animations, hand-drawn illustrations and writing, a visual cacophony of creative expressions. Cinematographer Iris Ng (The Apology, Stories We Tell) has done a realistic capture of old friends reuniting with the Jasmine and Sophie interviews plus those of other personnel associated with the original production. Jasmine is now a filmmaker and Sophie faculty of Film at Vassar.
The editing in bridging the 25-year-gap is seamless, the mood personal and quirky. Notable also are the sound mixing and the original score. Shirkers is more than just a chronicle of a mysterious lost-and-found, but a narrative that transcends grievances to situate personal experience in a larger social and cultural context.
Shirkers premiered at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival in January where Sandi Tan won the World Cinema Documentary Directing Award. The film was later acquired by Netflix and released October 26 via the streaming service.
Latest news is that Shirkers is among the 166 entries for Best Documentary Feature in the coming Oscars. Nominations for the short-list will be announced on Tuesday, January 22, 2019. The 91st Academy Awards show will be broadcast live on Sunday, February 24, 2019.
~ ~ ~ Ripples
Update Nov. 16: Shirkers has just been nominated for Best Documentary Independent Spirit Award.