A few days ago, a documentary I’ve been wanting to see ever since it won the best direction prize at Sundance was made available to watch on Netflix; the film has been garnering positive reviews pretty much wherever it’s screened, so I jumped at the chance to catch up with it at last. It was worth the wait; you may like to check it out yourself.
The film, Shirkers, was made by Sandi Tan, who now lives in Los Angeles but originally hails from Singapore. The title refers to a low-budget movie Tan made there in 1992 when she was still a movie-mad teenager in rebellion against her conservative upbringing; she wrote and took the lead role in the movie, which she made in collaboration with her friends Jasmine and Sophie and an older mentor, one Georges Cardona, who claimed to have filmmaking experience and was therefore allowed to direct. Using amateur actors (mainly friends and family), they shot the film – it appears to have been a highly idiosyncratic road-movie fantasy about a teenage killer – and then the girls, who’d left home to pursue their studies in Britain and the United States, waited for Georges to edit the footage of what they hoped would be Singapore’s first real indie movie. It turned out to be a seemingly endless wait, because Georges suddenly disappeared from their lives; worse, so did the footage.
I won’t give away any more of the story here, because that could spoil your enjoyment of Shirkers the documentary (as opposed to Shirkers the road-movie fantasy), in which Tan takes us through her childhood and teenage years, the shooting of the original movie, the events leading up to and following its disappearance, and her attempts, in recent years, to discover exactly what happened to the footage and why. Happily this is not one of those tricksy faux mysteries like Searching for Sugar Man. Tan, who tells her fascinating story in a straightforward, linear fashion, doesn’t try to conceal things from us; indeed, given that she enlists Jasmine, Sophie and others connected in one way or another to their film’s making and disappearance to offer their own takes on what happened, one thing that makes her documentary so disarming is its frankness. Tan is admirably forthright about what the loss of her movie meant to her – and wise enough to acknowledge that others may have responded differently to that loss. She’s also unafraid to confront the possibility that she may not always behaved as well as she should have; certainly she appears to take quite seriously Jasmine’s complaint that in prioritising the completion of her movie over everything else, the teenage Sandi could be something of an asshole.
Combining interviews, archive footage, photos, documents and animation in a narrative style which is constantly lively but never overly busy, the film touches on a wide range of themes – the innocence, optimism and restlessness of youth, the importance and shortcomings of the creative urge, the subjectivity of memory, the necessity of having a sense of purpose and of feeling that one somehow belongs, the value of film – without ever becoming lugubrious, pretentious or bitter. Indeed, notwithstanding the years of pain caused by what happened to Tan and her friends’ first attempt to make a movie, the tone of Shirkers is predominantly light and bright; Tan is bemused but also amused by the occasional strangeness of human behaviour, and her film is insightful, warm, witty and consistently engrossing. So while only one of the two Shirkers ended up being completed, I for one suspect it is the better one we are now able to see. Cause for celebration, I’d say.
Shirkers is now available to watch on Netflix.