Hot Docs 2018: Shirkers
Author, critic, and director Sandi Tan purges her past in the documentary Shirkers, concerning a movie made in her teens inspired by the works of David Lynch, Jim Jarmusch, and the Coen Brothers – which given the strict policies of the Sinagpore government, were next to impossible to be seen.
Tan became inspired to make her own movie, titled 'Shirkers', about a teenage girl who travels across Singapore while assassinating people via finger guns, and with the help of her friends shot it in the summer of 1992. National cultural critics agree that Shirkers had a major impact on the cinema of the country, and its artistry helped to move past the conventional storytelling structures popular with audiences. The problem is, it was never actually completed, a mystery this documentary of the same title delves deep into while covering everything that transpired over the last 25 years.
The relationship Tan shared with her filmmaking teacher Georges Cardona forms the backbone of Shirkers, a man twice her age who would neglect his wife and child to hang out with them and inspire with wild stories about his brushes with fame. Cardona’s seniority leads to him being in charge of directing Tan’s script, but we learn all about his insecurities and personal shortcomings which eventually lead to sabotage and the unmaking of what could have been a cult classic of world cinema. Cardona refers to himself more than once as the inspiration for James Spader’s character in sex, lies, and videotape, but as we eventually see, such a comparison is merely a mask for the way in which he desperately seeks out a life akin to his cinematic heroes, and in the process wreaks havoc on the friends and family that surround him, Tan especially.
A great deal of well-preserved footage from Shirkers is presented throughout, allowing for a window of time not just to Singapore’s history, but Tan’s own youthful exuberance in a cinematic time capsule. The imagery of the film makes it seem well composed and imaginative, and precedes the style of directors like Wes Anderson and Terry Zwigoff by several years, and while it’s not a complete film, it’s hard not to see how it could have been just as inspirational to a new generation of burgeoning filmmakers and cineastes.
Tan interviews her various collaborators in the present day about their experiences making the film, many of which have gone on to forge successful careers within the arts. They too embrace the nostalgic qualities of this experience, even when the subject moves into overt self-indulgence in more than one way. Regardless, Shirkers comes highly recommended for anyone that considers themselves a cinephile, or had their own brush with filmmaking that didn’t go as expected.