Sandi Tan’s Shirkers is one of the best documentaries of the year.
Synopsis: An inspired labor of love for zine-making teens Sandi Tan, Jasmine Ng and Sophie Siddique, Shirkers was a Singapore-made 1992 cult classic—or it would have been, had the 16mm footage not been stolen by their enigmatic American collaborator Georges Cardona, who disappeared. More than two decades later, Tan, now a novelist in L.A., returns to the country of her youth and to the memories of a man who both enabled and thwarted her dreams. Magically, too, she returns to the film itself, revived in a way she never could have imagined. (Netflix)
Starring: Sandi Tan, Sophia Siddique Harvey, and Georges Cardona
Writer: Sandi Tan
Director: Sandi Tan
Running Time: 96mins
If you look at Sandi Tan’s IMDb page, you’ll notice she’s never made a feature film. The site attributes her as film critic, zine creator, and short filmmaker. But her new documentary is the story of that first feature fiction film that never got made, and specifically why it never did. Growing up in Singapore, Tan started as a dreamer, in the most punk, big idea version of the word. One of the most charming anecdotes, found toward the beginning of the documentary, is about how Sandi turned her young relatives into anti-establishment, parent-hating toddlers. It’s a fair summary of Tan as a person, and the person we’ll be following for all of the documentary.
The documentary is a wonder, a recollection of one of the great mysteries of film that never came about, something akin to The Other Side of the Wind, except now, The Other Side of the Wind exists in a completed form. The original film only exists as a memory, and in small doses of footage, which shows a beautiful, 16mm wonderland. Because of those visual, it contributes to the majority of the found footage feeling like warm memory. The creation of the original film is hectic, wild, but the footage we see alone is striking. We’re carried through the making of this film, and the entire time, there’s something looming in the background.
When going through the behind the scenes footage of the making of the original film, Cardona only pops up once. Maybe this was deliberate on his behalf, but Georges is part of the reason that the documentary we’re watching exists. Without him, the original film would have been released, and could have possibly been a Singaporean classic. Cardona was Sandi Tan’s mentor, a thirty-some year old white man, who met Tan when she was a teenager, and helped her make her dreams come true. Well, sort of. Georges helped shoot Sandi Tan’s script, but he also disappeared with the footage, leaving nothing behind.
This lead to Tan’s entire dream slowly fading. She became a film critic and author, but the resolution of Shirkers is basically a non-ending. There’s no solution for the crushing disappointment someone can leave, when they pack up with a piece of you, and disappear. The way Georges is described brings to mind iconic cult leaders, or horrible white men who abuse the power they have. Sometimes those are one in the same, and Cardona always is portrayed as slightly off, similarly creeping. If this was ever adapted into a biopic, or a feature, you could easily see Mark Duplass’ character from Creep playing him.
But most of all, the film is really about the recovery from that. It’s not supposed to be a study of another enigmatic white man who destroys someone’s dream. It’s about that person, and how it was torn from her. Georges doesn’t matter, but Sandi has made a barn burner of a documentary, a combination of a retrospective, a investigation, and a self portrait. The man doesn’t matter, she does.
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