In 1992, a group of teenage cinephiles in Singapore set out to make a film, gathering their friends and neighbors to assert their country’s place in the cinema world at large. That film, Shirkers, was written by aspiring filmmaker and critic Sandi Tan — whose friendship with a mysterious, married, middle-aged American ex-pat named Georges would have a lasting impact on her life. A film professor full of tall-tales and dubious motives, Georges eventually absconded with the complete footage, leaving Shirkers to become one of Singapore’s great cinematic mysteries, a film-that-wasn’t but that still rocked the island nation’s almost nonexistent film industry. Then, 20 years later, Shirkers finally resurfaced, sending Tan on a quest to understand not only Georges’s motives for stealing such a large part of her life away, but also what impact the making of the film had on the relationships between the cast and crew.
Through silent footage culled from the remnants of Shirkers (the audio didn’t survive the years the film spent in the wilderness), interviews with various involved or interested parties, and often devastating bouts of very personal soul searching, Tan examines how a film that doesn’t actually exist, per se, can still have such a presence. In the 2018 Shirkers — the documentary that takes the name of Tan’s original film — cinema is an idea rather than a physical thing; it exists beyond the filmed image, is something intangible. Tan’s love for cinema history is evident in every glimpsed frame from her ill-fated film, with moments that recall everything from the French New Wave to Steven Soderbergh — and her characters display an improbable kinship with the disaffected denizens of Wes Anderson’s and Terry Zwigoff’s work, despite neither filmmaker having possibly been able to see Shirkers.
Tan examines how a film that doesn’t actually exist, per se, can still have such a presence.
At its heart, Tan’s documentary is a quietly radical act of self-love and catharsis — an exorcism of childhood demons that is at once joyful and haunted. What began as an effort to craft a DIY coming-of-age film when it went into production decades ago has taken on a new sheen through the critical lens of considering the circumstances under which it was made. Shirkers, film and documentary, offers the autobiography of a young woman discovering her own identity, and reclaiming it from the man who stole it from her. And while Tan may be seen as too close to that narrative, she still eschews nostalgia, favoring a clear-eyed self-reflection that finds personal resonance in its meta-film approach.
You can currently stream Sandi Tan’s Shirkers on Netflix.