Review: 'Shirkers' Is An Avant-Doc Master Work
This film was seen at the North Bend Film Festival. The film is now available to stream on Netflix. This review was originally published for UW Film Club and has since been republished here with the author’s permission.
Sandi Tan was a teenage rebel, growing up in the heart of Singapore. By age 16, Tan established her own cinema magazine with her best friend, watching American bootlegs. She began playing the part of protégé to Georges Cardona, her enigmatic film teacher whose life before teaching was entirely unknown. In 1992 at age 20 and by the urging of Cardona, Tan produced the visionary screenplay of Shirkers, a surrealist road movie. The inscrutable plot revolved around S, a young serial killer on a mission with a colorful gang of outlaws, including children, a nurse, and the largest dog in Singapore. Over a single summer, she, Cardona, and her friends Jasmine Ng and Sophie Siddique Harvey pulled together a production. Shirkers was a film that could have entered the cinematic conversation on a global scale, at the forefront of the national industry, and Sandi Tan stood at the precipice with the chance to alter the landscape of cinema permanently.
Then without warning, Shirkers, along with Cardona, vanished without a trace.
For 25 years, the film faded into their memories, until recently when Tan received word out of the blue that Cardona had died and left behind the 70 cans of 16mm film long since thought to be lost. Now, Shirkers is Tan’s attempt to reconcile the past, to piece back together the 25-year-old footage, and to solve the mystery as to why it had been stolen away by her own mentor. Shirkers perfectly intersects at Avant-Garde and Documentary by blending its surrealism with a reality that may be even stranger.
At first blush, Shirkers is an homage to its cinematic predecessors. Tan and her best friends acquired a voracious appetite for filmmaking that reflected the ways of both Hollywood and the French New Wave, admiring rebellious auteurs and their masterpieces. The French New Wave is particularly present in Shirkers, with voiceover and nonlinearity. It is a collage of footage dreamily reassembled in conjunction with the semi-scripted present. Tan’s omnipresent commentary and her interviews with Jasmine and Sophie are sharply funny and honest. They reflect on assembling a cast of kids and amateur actors as well as the adversities they faced in production. Tan toys with sequence, contextualizing their memories with cuts of film. They attribute their innovation to the fearlessness of youth; the reckless abandon with which these teenagers constructed a feature film on a shoestring budget. These girls were as uninhibited as their characters, pushing the limits of cinema and chewing gum at a time when it was illegal in Singapore. Yet, simultaneously, they were calculated and serious. The narrative itself is the same, pairing carefree adolescence with dark intensity, most clearly visible in Tan’s own bespectacled eyes as she plays the murderous S. She is a complex young prodigy in the shape of her idols.
Her narration in retrospect is not unlike Avant-Doc film Time Indefinite, in which American filmmaker Ross McElwee chronicles his own life experiences in a video diary. This “Cinema of Self” is another layer that Tan wraps Shirkers in, with her meta reflections on the production process and her thoughts on her own role in the film. Tan’s identity is doubled; as she exists both on camera and behind it. Here what sets her apart in this regard is her humility. She does what the men who have cultivated the Cinema of Self feared to do: she actively criticizes her own filmmaking. It is an instance of being acutely aware of one’s subjective position.
At the center of the film is Tan’s relationship with Cardona, who is as ethereal as the film he sought to imitate. The only references to his past were outlandish stories that never seemed to quite line up. He is the ghost that haunts her, and the only evidence of his existence are in recorded images and retrospect. In many ways Tan and Cardona are mirror images. They both contextualize their lives in terms of film and envisioned themselves as characters. Cardona fashioned himself a dramatic persona, aspiring to French New Wave figures such as François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard and American artists like Steven Soderberg, even going as far as emulating the very personalities found in the films of sex, lies, and videotape and Breathless .Tan even has Cardona credited as a director, and the lasting impact of his actions on her work and identity are apparent. It is as if his absconding, death, and resurfacing are him posthumously contributing to the larger plot. He is framed as a missing person built entirely on myth and Tan concludes that this was his intention. His possessiveness over art and sabotage of his protégé can be chalked up to fragile masculinity and a fear of being outdone, but there is an element of dramatic flair that is undeniable. Cardona has achieved what he wanted most: for the opacity of his life to be preserved in film.
It is safe to say though time has passed, Tan has not lost her touch for aesthetics. As she threads together the lost-and-found footage, she evokes a beautiful, nostalgic picture. The archive footage’s otherworldly quality is reinforced by a haunting score by Ishai Adar. It uses early 90s Singapore as its backdrop, transforming the flourishing city into liminal spaces; it documents the vibrant landscape that has been lost to history with the process of modernization. What ultimately makes the film stand out is how it combines various documentary conventions with the rebellious originality of childhood. The original cut of Shirkers alone would have been a vanguard of its time, and to have its story rediscovered and “finished” is a phenomenon. It remains grounded and personal, despite its surrealism. In an interview with Vogue, Tan herself mentions how the original Shirkers seemed to predict the cinematic tropes of the 90s, and “would have just slipped right in.” We can only speculate how Shirkers would have been received had it not disappeared, but it is undoubtedly radical.
Like a cold case reinvigorated with new evidence, Tan is able to find a sense of closure and a new chance at life for the film. Tan herself is uniquely equipped for filmmaking, as the story she tells is such an integral aspect of her identity. She dodges the sensationalism that strips other “unbelievable” documentaries of their humanity in favor of something more honest. It is refreshing to see an Avant-Doc spearheaded by a woman of color especially in a niche predominately occupied by white men. Her distinct brand of nostalgia is both delightful and uncanny. Whether you are a fan of film history, mysteries, or just looking for a diamond in the rough of Netflix, Shirkers is a vision to behold.