Shirkers delves into the past of director Sandi Tan, where she recalls the production of a film with the same name that she and her friends made some twenty years earlier. The then nineteen-year old Sandi, her friends Jasmine and Sophie, and older American film mentor Georges Cardona, had devised and filmed the fictional ‘Shirkers’ in Singapore back in the Summer of 1992. Tan’s project was a labour of love, scripted herself; it is an absurd, surreal tale following a serial killer called ‘S’ as she explores Singapore looking for children to steal and adventures to embark upon. The 2018 documentary, however, while recounting the experience of making ‘Shirkers’, is an attempt by Tan to understand the actions of Georges, who in posing as an experienced filmmaker abducts the film footage from the girls, keeping the 27 film reels from them until his death twenty-five years later.
The documentary is shot like a detective mystery in which Tan tries to uncover the truth of who Georges was, his impact on her friendships with both Sophie and Jasmine following the film’s loss, and his possible motives for withholding the reels all those years. Georges, a character suffused with lies and mythologies, by stealing the reels, takes from the girls not just the film but also their youthful, boisterous idealism and the powerful faith they have that they will always be able to materialise their dreams.
The documentary interweaves footage from the original film with interviews from the present day to create a film which is ‘a time capsule to a Singapore both real and imaginary;’ made timeless by the bizarre imagination of young women enthralled with punk zines, western films and a cultivated weirdness.
Shirkers expresses their youthful thirst to defy the conventions of 1990s conservative Singapore, a country where chewing gum was outlawed. The original feature length film utilises idiosyncratic narratives, a collision of surreal images, dreamlike sequences and absurd scenes, including that of little children being whisked off by a pink uniformed teenager and a board-game being played on a train track, embodying a new kind of Singaporean cinema. The way in which the film came to exist, the sheer DIY of it all, is light and comical and mesmerising in the daring of youth.
The return of the film reels to Tan begins a journey for resolution and recognition for ‘Shirkers’ that culminates in the film revealing a more powerful and evocative exploration of the complexity of creative female friendships. In interviews between Tan and Jasmine, who went on to become a famed Singaporean filmmaker in her own right, a sense of the binds of youthful friendship, woven through a shared desire to create and defy, is felt in all of their exchanges. Their squabbling during their reflections over the film, its production and their misplaced trust in Georges, never dispels a feeling of intense affection and closeness. In this respect, what first appears as an ode to cinema and filmmaking is really a celebration of the unique relationships that exist among the three exceptional women and the vision they shared.
A must see.
***I caught Shirkers as part of Flipbook Film’s screenings at Glasgow Zine Library; a film club which seeks to pair each film with specially crafted Zines. The film was the last in their series “Cinematic Documentary’s” and the accompanying zine was by Yi Ping Tan. Keep your eyes peeled for more of their screenings, there was even a complimentary tea!