The Strange Backward Journey of Sandi Tan’s Shirkers

Shirkers

The year is 1992 and 19 year old Singaporean aspirant filmmaker, Sandi Tan, would stop at nothing to make her dream road movie Shirkers. However, her dream is thwarted by the sudden disappearance of the footage post production. Years later, Sandi finds herself replaying the past for clues and following the traces of the man who runs off with the reels. The 2018 documentary film Shirkers is about the road movie in question, also titled Shirkers, which never saw the light of day. A gorgeous cinematic experience that is riveting, terrifying, and endearing all at the same time. A hidden-gem of a Netflix original you’ve probably been sleeping on.

Move forward with caution as there are spoilers ahead!

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Sandy Shirker lying on grass
Source: Shirkers

Imagine the horror of having the most important thing taken away from you. For Sandi and her friends, it was the 70 cans of unprocessed film that could’ve turned into Singapore’s next cult classic. Sandi’s scary but beautiful debut is a thriller just as much as it is about the love for cinema entwined with her coming of age. As the story unfolds, there are a few things that come to light. Shirkers, for Sandi Tan, is a journey in search of answers that inadvertently turns into a journey of self-reflection. It is also a love letter for cinema and cinephiles like us.

Shot in the streets of Singapore in 1992, Shirkers basks unapologetically in the tenacity of our adorable misfits, i.e., Sandi and her friends. Having thrown herself into her dream project with total abandon, all her wits and ideas, it was what made Shirkers. Our heart shatters when we learn that the footage returns to them without the original audio, 20 years later. But even as we watch the audio-altered version of the film through the documentary, we cannot help but sigh at the loss of the masterpiece that could have been. Gorging on the candy-coated colors and beautifully-shot vistas of 90’s Singapore was one of my favorite memories of watching Shirkers for the first time. The soundtrack even has the dissonant, eerie quality that ties in beautifully with the theme of both the original and documentary Shirkers.

Source: Netflix

The documentary retains the quirky, nostalgic quality of the original Shirkers. A decision that is much appreciated. In one of the most memorable bits, the film takes a quick trip back to the 80’s where we get a peek of Sandi and her friend Jasmine’s obsessions and influences as teenagers. It was refreshing to see Singapore’s underground punk-rock scene against the backdrop of a country so uptight even chewing gum was banned. Literally everything they thought of could be brought to life in scrapbooks filled with texts and images borrowed straight from the punk-rock scene in the U.S and the U.K. The teens thrived in a small circle that challenged the authorities by devouring films and music that were banned in their country. This was their way of protesting.

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The passion with which they pursued their interests head on is what made us root for them. Besides, these were kids who painstakingly handwrote rockzines, bootlegged movies, and found inspiration in unusual indie films. They were exceptional and discerning! The type of teens who would jump at the opportunity of attending a filmmaking class run by a strange man who claimed to be an American filmmaker. The man, Georges Cardona, who would later take Sandi and her friends under his wing, direct Shirkers, and abscond with the reels.

Georges Cardona
Source: Shirkers

The character of Georges Cardona is grimly painted early on. He is the most important person in the film. Someone young Sandi confided in and bonded with over their love for movies. The entire time, we are made to feel uneasy with their strange mentor-student friendship. Like something we weren’t supposed to know. Sandi later reveals that she knew how their age-blind friendship sounded even back then. But we’re not sure why she chose to ignore the “strange signals” he was sending. Was she scared of confronting him? Or did she love the idea of having an experienced person validate her dreams too much to let go? An answer that Sandi doesn’t provide.

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She also later talks about his portrayal in an interview. That she was very careful about not making him look like a mere villain as he was much more fascinating than that. Indeed, he was! And as one of the sole focuses in the film, we couldn’t help but feel entitled to know more about this enigmatic character. It was like an itch we couldn’t quite scratch. But as we move forward, we are forced to make-do with the very little Sandi and the others knew about him and his motives. If I had to nitpick about one tiny detail though, it has to be the rather anti-climatic meeting with Georges’ mother where details of it were never disclosed. Whether or not Sandi intended to leave it this way is not clear either.

Sandy's clap board
Source: Shirkers

Having finally uncovered some truths about Georges, the documentary heads towards stories that don’t favor his image. But it is abundantly clear that his former acquaintances were only telling the events as they were. A theory that makes our skin crawl is that maybe Georges had wanted this all along. Maybe it was his way of becoming the very thing he so loved — a great story! Although, how he achieved this is questionable and maybe unforgiveable to some. But despite young Sandi’s revenge fantasies of Georges, he will always remain an inescapable part of her past. In a way, I feel that Shirkers was her finally embracing this fact.

Have you seen the film yet? What did you think of it?

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Sources: Rookie and Netflix 
Featured Image: Official poster of the film

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