Sandi Tan on her new documentary Shirkers, the compelling story of a stolen indie film – and its triumphant second iteration 25 years later
“When you’re growing up in the stultifying landscape of Singapore, where everything’s uniformly grey in the urban areas and uniformly green in the rural areas, and there’s nothing in between really, you just have to make your own culture and your own fun,” says writer and filmmaker Sandi Tan. She’s speaking from experience. Coming of age in the 1980s on the small, conservative island, where chewing gum was illegal, and independent cinema was an entirely foreign concept that could only be accessed via black market video tapes, Tan was a self-described “outsider” with an insuppressible love of film.
From a young age, she was imbued with a restless desire to create – in her mid-teens, she and her best friend Jasmine Ng began producing their own punk fanzine, The Exploding Cat, and by 18, Tan was working as the film critic for Singapore’s biggest newspaper, the Straits Times. But most of all she wanted to make her own movie; to pioneer an underground film scene in her native country; to follow in the footsteps of her idols Jim Jarmusch, David Lynch and the Coen brothers. And so she and Jasmine enrolled in an evening film production course, helmed by a mysterious middle-aged American named Georges Cardona, unwittingly setting the wheels in motion for a decade-spanning story that, to quote Tan, is “stranger than fiction”. It is this tale, filled with heady highs and traumatic lows, that forms the basis of Tan’s first fully realised feature film, the newly released Netflix documentary Shirkers, a brilliant and engrossing film about three young aspirants and the man who quite literally stole their dream.
This dream was a feature film named Shirkers, written by a 19-year-old Tan and made during the summer of 1992 with the help of Jasmine (who took on the role of editor), another friend Sophie Siddique (the producer) and Cardona (the director). But unlike its eponymous progeny, this Shirkers was fictional, centred around a 16-year-old serial killer named ‘S’ (played by Tan), who embarks on a road trip across Singapore, making friends and murdering unfortunate foes with a finger gun. “I wanted a place to catalogue all my favourite spaces in Singapore: all the strange mannequin shops; the railway tracks; the highways that weren’t finished yet; the sleepy neighbourhoods with the strange gates,” Tan explains of the motives behind her original movie and the glorious, pastel-hued alternate reality it conjures. “This was a very specific vision of my world that didn’t include skyscrapers or any of usual things you might associate with Singapore, like how Paris, Texas shows a very specific side of America. We were trying to create our own mythology for a place that was sterile and boring and beige. It was a way of collecting interesting faces as well,” she adds. “My grandmother, who was getting on, and my baby cousin, star in it, along with other friends and people we auditioned.”
The shoot was long, arduous and incredibly expensive, with Tan and her cohorts investing all of their savings in its production. Cardona, who Tan had come to view as a close friend and mentor, in spite of the fact that he was twice her age and most of her friends disliked him, was uncompromising and ruthless as a director, but she trusted him and the vast experience he claimed to have of the industry. “I saw Georges as a conduit for my plot to get the film off the ground,” she recalls. “We needed an adult to front it and he was the grown-up face of the production.” And it appeared to pay off. By the end of the summer, filming had wrapped, and Tan and her friends left Singapore to pursue their respective studies in Europe and the States, leaving Cardona to process the 70 cans of 16mm film into which they’d poured their hearts. But just as Tan’s ambitious vision finally appeared to be taking shape, Cardona disappeared into thin air, taking the reels with him, never to be seen again.
Fast forward 20 years and Tan, then in her early 40s, had settled in America where she had enjoyed a successful career as a film critic and had just written her first novel. Shirkers, and the traumatic dashing of her youthful ambitions, had haunted her for many years, tarnishing her friendships with Jasmine and Sophie, but she was beginning to move on. In 2011, though, she received a box from Cardona’s wife containing a number of the film reels. Six more boxes followed in the coming months until all 70 cans had been returned. “I knew when I began receiving them that this would be a rabbit hole that I would disappear into,” she tells AnOther of this unexpected, emotionally charged homecoming. “So I kept them in a corner of my living room, stacked vertically, and didn’t look at them for three years; I knew I’d need to be psychologically – and economically – prepared for what might be once I opened them.”
Her instincts turned out to be right. Upon unsealing the boxes, she found all the cans in a perfect condition – although the sound recordings had tragically been lost – and, with a feeling of trepidation, she took them to be digitised. “That was a huge undertaking and I was so nervous about whether my memories of filming would live up to the footage,” she says. Happily, it was just as good, if not better, than she’d remembered. “I was sitting in the lab with this technician who’d had nothing to do with the film and his jaw dropped. This was a guy who works with Criterion Blu-rays, Douglas Sirk movies… and he was completely fascinated by this. He didn’t know me, he didn’t know the story, he just thought it was amazing footage.” It was then that the idea for Shirkers 2.0 began to emerge. “I thought okay, if a complete stranger is thinking this, then I really have something here.”
Without wanting to give too much away, Shirkers, in its final form, sees Tan unearth what she terms “a secret history” that had looked set to “haunt and bond [her and her collaborators] forever”. It comprises numerous interviews with said collaborators and dreamlike footage from the original Shirkers (which startlingly foreshadows such indie classics as Rushmore and Ghost World with its idiosyncratic characters and choreography and beguiling cinematography) as well as letters, drawings and photos from Tan’s youth. It also serves as a thrilling investigation into the life of Georges Cardona, a truly sinister figure, including intriguing interviews with his wife and former protégé. “I realised early on that there was no way I could tell this story without telling my own story and Georges,” the director explains.
Tan spent two and a half years making the documentary, and nine months editing it – “it was like a birth, really,” she says of the time span – in the appropriately DIY setting of her garage. Her process of finding collaborators for Shirkers’ second iteration was as instinctive as the first, albeit on a bigger scale. “My editor was 27 and was basically a skateboarding barista who had been an uncredited runner on Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers and an assistant editor on Author, the JT Leroy documentary – that was it! But he was amazing. And then I found a composer in Israel and worked with him via Skype – I had him sample this Singaporean singer called Weish. So it became this kind of international tribe that I handpicked, just as we had done in Singapore for the original.”
The result is a documentary that pulsates with the subversive creative spirit that birthed its namesake. It is a mesmeric ode not only to the films that have long inspired Tan, from American indie to the French New Wave, but also to the unbridled passion and determination of youth that has spawned so many countercultures, from the Beats to the punk pioneers. “It was great was going back into my own head as a teenager and reliving the whole thing,” Tan says on the subject. “Remembering how energised and curious I was and becoming that person again while I was making this film. I rediscovered my superhero identity almost.” This rediscovery is a tangible, and utterly contagious, part of the Shirkers experience and saw the film garner a cult status on the festival circuit prior to its release. “I’ve had people come up to me who have seen it at three or four different festivals around the world – they’ve been chasing it, which is very unusual for a documentary,” Tan says with audible delight. “I feel like it gives them a high and I think that must be the high of remembering what it is to be young and fearless and energetic. I think everybody should reacquaint themselves with that and if I’ve managed to help them do so then I feel very happy.”
On her part, the making of Shirkers has been a chance to reclaim something stolen from her as a young girl; to have the last laugh, while assuaging the guilt she has carried with her for so many years. “Everyone involved in the film gave so much to it, and it was such a sad thing that they all had a chunk of their lives sucked into this void by Georges Cardona. It was very late coming but at least some of it I’ve been able to restore,” she says. And as for the villain himself? “He’s definitely villainous but he’s not my villain; he’s my nemesis – I see him as an equal rather than someone who triumphed over me. In fact, I think we’ve definitely triumphed over him.”
Shirkers is available to stream on Netflix now.