If you want an intriguing mystery buried inside a documentary that pontificates on the act of moviemaking itself, look no further than Shirkers. One of the things I prized most about my number one film of 2018 – the documentary Free Solo – was how layered that film is. Shirkers is the same. Director Sandi Tan’s film never stops blossoming from beginning to end. It continually digs deeper into questions of creativity, friendship, obsession, and betrayal.
At first, the documentary is about Tan’s attempt to make a movie in her home country of Singapore in the early 1990s when she was between high school and college. She recruited her closest friends to help her. One of those friends was an older American film teacher and mentor to Tan named Georges Cardona. The mystery Tan explores in the documentary is what happened to Georges when he disappeared – along with every frame of her film.
The twisting, turning tale of Cardona vanishing with the raw footage of Tan’s passion project, a road movie also titled Shirkers, would be more than enough to sustain the picture. But Tan opens the movie with a detailed examination of her early life in Singapore, and how cinema, and art in general, opened the world to her. Movies were her all-consuming passion. She and her friends produced DIY fanzines about their favorite pop culture, years before the rise of the internet and blogging.
Tan also delves into how Cardona nurtured and seemed to feed off of her obsession. It’s the kind of mentor/mentee relationship which many people go through in their impressionable teenage years. Cardona, as you might suspect, tried to take advantage of their relationship, but Tan says it happened only once, and that they never spoke of it again when she rejected his advances.
What makes Shirkers so haunting is the masterful way Tan incorporates into her documentary the 16mm footage of her long-ago first filmmaking effort– it’s not a spoiler that she eventually got the film back, since she uses scenes from it in the first shot of the documentary. She reminisces in voice-over about the experiences of making the movie as scenes from it play out on the screen in silence. You’ll have to see the doc to find out why Tan’s original, early 90s Shirkers is now, and forever, a silent film.
Along the way, Tan conducts interviews with her friends about their memories of making a movie when they were so young and inexperienced. These interviews are revelatory about Tan herself because her friends, one in particular, is brutally honest about Tan’s personality. The whole film is an unflinching look at how events in the distant past continue to shape Tan’s perspective of the world. Shirkers is a fascinating view into the life of Sandi Tan specifically because of her willingness to be vulnerable for the sake of her art.