Shirkers, written and directed by Sandi Tan, is a wonderfully stitched together documentary both recounting and discovering what happened to her film made in Singapore in the early 90s that was stolen by her mentor, Georges Cardona. (DLH: 4.5/5)
Review by FF2 Intern Dayna Hagewood
*This Review contains a spoiler!*
Shirkers is an incredible taking back of what was stolen from filmmaker and former critic Sandi Tan and her friends (Jasmine Kin Kia Ng and Sophia Siddique Harvey) after they were swindled by the manipulative Cardona. The film combines pieces of the original Shirkers film along with letters, documents, zine excerpts, interviews, and creative graphics that form a diverse fabric that tells the story of their misfortune in a way that reclaims their artistic power while attempting to solve the mysteries that have haunted them for thirty years.
Though a strong majority of the film is merely voice-over narration and different physical pieces of evidence from the original film, Tan manages to construct her documentary in a way that is supremely interesting, eerie, and emotional. She ties in excerpts from the films that inspired her and disgusted her, and it’s a nostalgic treat to watch cuts of Breathless (dir. Godard, 1960), Sex, Lies, and Videotapes (dir. Soderbergh, 1989), and The Seventh Seal (dir. Bergman, 1957) integrated into Tan’s recount of her beginnings as a filmmaker and critic.
It certainly helps that some of the original members of the crew have differing opinions on their experiences, which demonstrates the toll that Shirkers and Cardona’s manipulative influence took on them, both during production and during the thirty years they spent grieving the loss of their masterpiece.
As if stealing 70 rolls of footage from 18- and 19-year olds isn’t bad enough, the glimpses of the reclaimed footage we see in the documentary demonstrate a truly painful point—the original Shirkers looks like an absolutely astonishing film. During an era where Singapore wasn’t yet on the global film radar, the original Shirkers would have likely put the country on the map for film history, not to mention the benefits it could have provided for the careers of the inventive young women that put it together with their blood, sweat and tears. Highly stylized and innovative, the original film looks like a blend between the work of Vera Chytilová and Jean-Luc Godard with all of the imagination and chutzpah of childhood woven in.
But the best part of the Shirkers documentary is arguably the underlying message in Tan’s decision to construct this film as opposed to stitching the original back together after Cardona’s death and their recovery of the reels. Tan has decided to let Shirkers live as a disjointed mystery within a new film. We will never get to see the original masterpiece, and this is ultimately not important. What does matter is what the film means for those that were involved. As Tan explains, film documents a time, a place, and the people within its scope, and for her, the new Shirkers is all she needs to cope with her loss.
Enthralling, lively, and full of emotion (both passionate and dissonant), Shirkers is a must-see for artists, cinephiles, and anyone who has ever wondered about the meaning and implications of art. Tan’s homage and investigation into her first project will leave you bereft and satisfied in eerily similar harmony with the contributors of the original film.
Featured Photo: “S” (Sandi Tan) from the original Shirkers.
Bottom Photo: “S” on the original set of Shirkers.
Photo Credit: IMDB US
Does Shirkers pass the Bechdel-Wallace test?
Yes! Though a lot of the film does focus around Georges Cardona, there are many conversations between Tan and Ng as well as Tan and Harvey about the filmmaking process and their complicated relationships with each other.