If your best friend had stolen your childhood dream, would you relive the nightmare 25 years later? That is the enticing premise for Sandi Tan’s documentary Shirkers, which I saw at the ICA last Saturday. It’s another example of the power of narrative-driven documentary – part memoir and part film within a film, all wrapped up in a mystery.
Without giving it away, let’s briefly set the scene. It’s 1992 and teenage Tan is a self-confessed weirdo, very precocious and obsessed with alternative culture, devouring everything from Jarmusch films to punk music. She sets out to make Singapore’s first indie road movie with friends Jasmine Ng (as editor) and Sophie Siddique (as producer). They know very little about the technical side but in the rush of youth anything is possible. And must happen. Now!
Tan’s script would be about the freewheeling adventures of an assassin called S, partly inspired by the character of Bruno S in Werner Herzog’s The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser … but with a little Cleopatra Wong thrown in (originally played by her one-time stepmom Maggie Lee). Self-indulgence would be its calling card. When there’s no one to tell you no, you can let your imagination run wild.
She wanted to create an alternate universe, alluring and idiosyncratic like the ones discovered on VHS copies of movies by David Lynch and the Coen Brothers. Filmmakers who could find freedom by “building worlds inside your head”, as she puts it in the trailer. Shirkers would be the complete antithesis of the dour social realism dominating Singaporean cinema at the time. Instead, this would be a coming of age tale, a fantasy bristling with youthful innocence and rebellion.
The three girls all went to a filmmaking workshop led by the charismatic Georges Cardona, “a man of unplaceable age and origin”. He offered to direct and quickly became Tan’s new best friend. Tan and Cardona even embarked on an American road trip together up the West Coast, as if scouting for the spirit of Shirkers.
Before long, a novice crew and amateur cast were on a guerrilla-style shoot in hundreds of locations across the state. Often they would spend no more than 15 minutes a day shooting in magic hour (a narrow window of glorious light) around secluded spots and tropical green expanses. Singapore would never look the same again.
We hear about the struggles on set: the rising tension between Tan and Ng, the overbearing influence of the director and the financial strain of the production. At one point, it got so bad that Tan and Siddique had to go from ATM to ATM drawing their savings to keep Shirkers afloat. Despite all these problems, and the mounting suspicion around Cardona, they got it done. The girls disbanded to study at colleges in New York, Los Angeles and the UK, waiting expectedly for a cut from Cardona.
Then disaster struck. He disappeared with the Kodak 16mm cans, only making brief contact as if to taunt his victims. And this wasn’t the first time he had sabotaged someone else’s project. The internet was in its infancy, making it a lot easier to vanish. What else could they do but try to forget and move on.
Fast forward to 2011 and Cardona’s widow sends Tan several boxes. Inside there is good news and bad. It turns out that Cardona had taken exceptional care of the reels by wrapping each one in black plastic. So when postproduction house Modern VideoFilm (The Grand Budapest Hotel, Douglas Sirk Criterion Blu-ray series) reviewed the material prior to digitisation and 2K restoration, they couldn't believe the footage was more than 20 years old. But a vital piece was missing and … let’s just say the release of the original Shirkers is a long way off.
After much agonising, and a few gentle nudges from her husband, Tan decided to see if she could make something good from a bad situation. In 2015, She got together with cinematographer Iris Ng (Stories We Tell) and began collecting interviews with key crew as well as respected film critics in Singapore and those who had been charmed and bamboozled by Cardona.
The exchanges with Ng are occasionally awkward. She still feels very bitter about the experience and how Tan did not heed her repeated warnings about Cardona. That interview lasted two hours and much of it could not be used as Ng was letting off so much steam.
Ng says Tan can be an “asshole”, while Tan calls Ng a “diva”. This friction between ‘frenemies’ makes for some wonderfully candid and funny moments. In fact, the combination of interviews and the director’s earnest narration gives Shirkers a unique character – somewhere between a ‘making of’ and the DVD commentary for a film that never was.
What a journey it’s been for Tan, or rather an exorcism as she calls it. After the screening at the ICA we were told how she wrestled with Cardona’s place in the film and how his ghost could easily have overshadowed the documentary, as this early trailer demonstrates.
She calls him a “vampire of cinema”, a delicious description in reference to how he assumed traits and characters from the films he loved – Fitzcarraldo, Paris, Texas, Godard and Truffaut – and sucked the life out of others. Cardona claims to have inspired the James Spader character in Steven Soderbergh’s Palm D’Or-winning Sex, Lies & Videotape. What do you think?
Although he is the villain of the piece, Cardona did have certain qualities. Tan says he was a great cinematographer, inspired by Nestor Almendros who worked on Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven. And it’s true, he did help to make each sumptuous frame pop with colour and capture several beguiling scenes – masked children playing on the street, Singapore’s largest dog popping up in random places, the Shinurse weeping in her apartment and that board game being played on a train track.
Tan’s anger has subsided after 25 years, as you would hope. She is now a wife, mother and published author with stints as a film critic for the Straits Times and accomplished shorts like this under her belt. And let’s not forget this year’s Sundance award for best director in the World Cinema Documentary category. Although Cardona stole her youth, he gave her an ardent love of storytelling that has never left. As Variety says, this is “Tan reclaiming the film and the story that he had taken away from her.”
Unravelling the mystery is a huge part of why Shirkers so watchable. I found this thread on YouTube quite interesting.
But there is more to it than artifice. The film is about the wonder of cinema and art as escapism. That urge to just go out and make stuff, “totally fearless, DIY, free”. This zine-like, handcrafted aesthetic is at the heart of Shirkers, whether it’s Tan’s use of graphics or the dynamic editing of Lucas Celler (Author: The JT LeRoy Story) who even taught himself After Effects on the fly. That’s the spirit.
On a basic human level, this documentary is also about renewing friendships and making peace with the past. And that is something we can all relate to.
Shirkers premieres on Netflix on 26 October and is also showing at the ICA in London.
PS Listen closely for the score by Ishai Adar, which features the spectral voice of artist Weish. She only started making music in 2013 but is something special. Tan found her on the internet. It's the perfect blend of eerie, intimate and and playful. Here is a clip of her performing at Sheffield Doc/Fest earlier in the year.