‘Shirkers’ Film Review: Search for a Lost Film Leads to Awkward, Illuminating Truths

Sandi Tan’s documentary “Shirkers” — about a mysterious feature film also named “Shirkers” that Tan made as a 19-year-old student — unravels like a whodunit.

This is a documentary about the making of a film that disappeared, pilfered away by one of Tan’s now-deceased teachers, Georges Cardona. The only evidence of its existence was in the minds of the makers and those Singaporeans who held out hope that this storied movie, which would have been the country’s first indie feature, would one day find release.

We do, of course, find that the missing footage has been salvaged; a large portion of this film is comprised of scenes from the original footage played under music and Tan’s voiceover. But it’s the story of how the footage is found, and how Tan and her friends see the film and their old teacher now, that is boundlessly interesting.

Also Read: Sundance Award-Winning Doc ‘Shirkers’ Lands at Netflix

Tan entices us from the opening frames with vibrant images of a pre-boom Singapore, where she was born and raised, and where she and her friend Jasmine Ng began a fervent collaboration of art, music and film with all the unearned confidence of punk-rock kids.

Suddenly, it becomes apparent that this is actually the original “Shirkers” that we’re watching. Though Tan herself only appears briefly in the film in the present day, she’s in nearly every frame of this mesmerizing footage, playing the role of capricious murderer S.

Ng jokes of Tan writing herself into the lead role. “Oh, I wonder what S stood for,” she says, hinting at their barbed relationship. Scenes of the original “Shirkers” play out like a fever dream with nonsensical action, like a woman dressed as a nurse dancing with a dog on a rooftop, popping up out of nowhere. It’s like “Ghost World” meets “Hausu,” with a lot of walking, thinking and talking (that we can’t hear) as well as popping colors and inventive special effects, the kind of narrative dreamed up by kids unshackled from the need to make sense.

Also Read: ‘Half the Picture’ Film Review: Women Directors Tell All in Illuminating, Infuriating Doc

Much of the rest of the film is a combination of present-day interviews with the people who helped make the original film, which is almost always followed by Tan’s own commentary on those interviews, as she wades through her own deeply submerged memories. Most of these stories tend to return to their enigmatic teacher Georges.

At first, I found it frustrating and then fascinating that Tan felt compelled to devote so much of her personal film to the male teacher who both assisted and sabotaged her creative life. Georges, for sure, is a puzzle. In voice recordings, his accent is unplaceable. Pictures capture a vague ethnicity. He’s a kind of Machiavellian figure who seemingly emerges from nowhere to egg on these kids’ creative urges.

Tan collects bits and pieces of what Georges had told others when they were kids and finds that each person contains a bit of knowledge that is a slightly warped version of what the others have; Georges’ insecurities ran so deeply that his life was an avalanche of lies.

One of the stranger sections of Tan’s relationship with Georges comes when he invites her on a road trip across the U.S. Tan is still a teenager at the time, and Georges, well, who knows how old he was. Tan took him up on the invitation and spent her time soaking up his tall tales, the most salient being that the James Spader character in Steven Soderbergh’s “Sex, Lies, and Videotape” was based on him. (Later, we will come to understand that that is a lie.)

Also Read: ‘Better Call Saul’ Writer Offers Advice After Jason Blum Says Few Women Want to Direct Horror Films

Tan accepts these stories as fact, impressionable as she is and searching out validation. It comes as no surprise that on this trip Georges apparently asked Tan to “touch his belly,” and she refused and pretended it didn’t happen. Who wouldn’t see the possibility of Georges trying to take advantage of this young girl? But what makes this story different is Tan and her reaction, which is simply… curiosity. Yet this is also Tan’s interpretation of the memory now, and the longer the film goes on, the more we understand that perhaps all of Tan’s memories are flawed.

What we — and Tan — come to find is that how the director describes or sees herself in the past doesn’t always match up to her collaborators’ opinions of the time; this is also a story about the stories we tell ourselves. Though Tan’s voiceover explaining the origin of “Shirkers” seems direct at first, underneath this measured statement lies a coyness, a sense that perhaps the audience will never receive the full story because of Tan’s own inability to face her past.

At one point, Ng becomes frustrated because she can’t get Tan to see the story outside of herself. She tells Tan: “You’re an a–hole.” And then the film adds yet another layer, its tendrils stretching into an exploration of self-projection. “Am I an a–hole?” Tan wonders aloud.

The significance of that question and statement didn’t hit me at first. The entire idea of a director trying to discover if she is or was an a–hole didn’t completely interest me until the cumulative subtext and unanswered questions of her film hit me. Was she an a–hole like Georges was an a–hole? Was she just as guilty of rewriting her own narrative as Georges was?

Like another breakout independent film this year, “The Tale,” Tan’s documentary attempts to portray her own narrative with objectivity and distance, but she discovers along the way that such a thing may not be possible, that memories will wait years or decades to snag you in their truths.



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Sandi Tan’s documentary “Shirkers” — about a mysterious feature film also named “Shirkers” that Tan made as a 19-year-old student — unravels like a whodunit.

This is a documentary about the making of a film that disappeared, pilfered away by one of Tan’s now-deceased teachers, Georges Cardona. The only evidence of its existence was in the minds of the makers and those Singaporeans who held out hope that this storied movie, which would have been the country’s first indie feature, would one day find release.

We do, of course, find that the missing footage has been salvaged; a large portion of this film is comprised of scenes from the original footage played under music and Tan’s voiceover. But it’s the story of how the footage is found, and how Tan and her friends see the film and their old teacher now, that is boundlessly interesting.

Tan entices us from the opening frames with vibrant images of a pre-boom Singapore, where she was born and raised, and where she and her friend Jasmine Ng began a fervent collaboration of art, music and film with all the unearned confidence of punk-rock kids.

Suddenly, it becomes apparent that this is actually the original “Shirkers” that we’re watching. Though Tan herself only appears briefly in the film in the present day, she’s in nearly every frame of this mesmerizing footage, playing the role of capricious murderer S.

Ng jokes of Tan writing herself into the lead role. “Oh, I wonder what S stood for,” she says, hinting at their barbed relationship. Scenes of the original “Shirkers” play out like a fever dream with nonsensical action, like a woman dressed as a nurse dancing with a dog on a rooftop, popping up out of nowhere. It’s like “Ghost World” meets “Hausu,” with a lot of walking, thinking and talking (that we can’t hear) as well as popping colors and inventive special effects, the kind of narrative dreamed up by kids unshackled from the need to make sense.

Much of the rest of the film is a combination of present-day interviews with the people who helped make the original film, which is almost always followed by Tan’s own commentary on those interviews, as she wades through her own deeply submerged memories. Most of these stories tend to return to their enigmatic teacher Georges.

At first, I found it frustrating and then fascinating that Tan felt compelled to devote so much of her personal film to the male teacher who both assisted and sabotaged her creative life. Georges, for sure, is a puzzle. In voice recordings, his accent is unplaceable. Pictures capture a vague ethnicity. He’s a kind of Machiavellian figure who seemingly emerges from nowhere to egg on these kids’ creative urges.

Tan collects bits and pieces of what Georges had told others when they were kids and finds that each person contains a bit of knowledge that is a slightly warped version of what the others have; Georges’ insecurities ran so deeply that his life was an avalanche of lies.

One of the stranger sections of Tan’s relationship with Georges comes when he invites her on a road trip across the U.S. Tan is still a teenager at the time, and Georges, well, who knows how old he was. Tan took him up on the invitation and spent her time soaking up his tall tales, the most salient being that the James Spader character in Steven Soderbergh’s “Sex, Lies, and Videotape” was based on him. (Later, we will come to understand that that is a lie.)

Tan accepts these stories as fact, impressionable as she is and searching out validation. It comes as no surprise that on this trip Georges apparently asked Tan to “touch his belly,” and she refused and pretended it didn’t happen. Who wouldn’t see the possibility of Georges trying to take advantage of this young girl? But what makes this story different is Tan and her reaction, which is simply… curiosity. Yet this is also Tan’s interpretation of the memory now, and the longer the film goes on, the more we understand that perhaps all of Tan’s memories are flawed.

What we — and Tan — come to find is that how the director describes or sees herself in the past doesn’t always match up to her collaborators’ opinions of the time; this is also a story about the stories we tell ourselves. Though Tan’s voiceover explaining the origin of “Shirkers” seems direct at first, underneath this measured statement lies a coyness, a sense that perhaps the audience will never receive the full story because of Tan’s own inability to face her past.

At one point, Ng becomes frustrated because she can’t get Tan to see the story outside of herself. She tells Tan: “You’re an a–hole.” And then the film adds yet another layer, its tendrils stretching into an exploration of self-projection. “Am I an a–hole?” Tan wonders aloud.

The significance of that question and statement didn’t hit me at first. The entire idea of a director trying to discover if she is or was an a–hole didn’t completely interest me until the cumulative subtext and unanswered questions of her film hit me. Was she an a–hole like Georges was an a–hole? Was she just as guilty of rewriting her own narrative as Georges was?

Like another breakout independent film this year, “The Tale,” Tan’s documentary attempts to portray her own narrative with objectivity and distance, but she discovers along the way that such a thing may not be possible, that memories will wait years or decades to snag you in their truths.

Related stories from TheWrap:

Cannes Film Festival Signs Pledge for More Women Directors, More Transparency

Hollywood Gender Gap Shocker: Women Directed Just 3 Percent of This Year's Studio Films (Exclusive)

Brie Larson: Women Directing Feminine Movies Are 'Radical' (Video)

'Free Solo,' 'Minding the Gap,' 'Won't You Be My Neighbor?' Land IDA Documentary Nominations

‘Shirkers’ Director Sandi Tan on How Her Film Was Lost — and Found, After 25 Years

The Sundance hit recently played as part of the IDA’s screening series.

In 1992, teenager Sandi Tan and her two film-loving best friends spent their summer break making an independent film in their home of Singapore. It would have been one of the country’s first independent films if it had been completed. After filming, their director and film teacher Georges Cardona stole their completed footage. When Tan got the footage back two decades later, she decided to make a documentary about the making of her movie — and what exactly happened to it afterward.

After a screening of her documentary, “Shirkers” (named after the original movie), as part of the International Documentary Association’s annual screening series in Los Angeles, Tan said the main question she’s gotten at Q&As is why she and her friends didn’t search harder for the man who stole their movie.

“A lot of people don’t seem to remember that in the ’90s, the Internet didn’t exist yet,” she said. “It was hard to look for someone who had vanished.”

Also, few understood that they had written a script, auditioned and hired actors, corralled hundreds of extras, secured the 70 rolls of film they shot for free from film companies, and filmed at 100 different locations across Singapore. Not many people were willing to help.

For years after, Tan felt almost as if she’d dreamed the entire thing. And while she dreamed of making films, she became a film critic for a time, then went to film school at Columbia, and eventually became a novelist. But once she got the footage back, her childhood dreams resurfaced. She realized she had to investigate what happened with Cardona not only for herself, but for everyone involved in making the original movie. That was easier said than done.

"Shirkers"

“Shirkers”

Sundance

“It was really hard to convince people I could make this when I had nothing to show for it,” she said. She made the documentary with the same punk-kid spirit she had when she and her friends made the film back in the ’90s — and even hired a barista with one credit (but a lot of passion) to help her edit the movie.

“The whole process of making this movie was really empowering,” she said, which allowed her to rediscover her “love for making movies. … I got to find a new tribe of people to bring this to life with.”

While Cardona painstakingly stored the film in climate-controlled areas for two decades, the sound was lost to time. So while some people have suggested Tan try to edit the original movie together, it seems like an impossible task.

“I think that would be a fun project,” she said — although it would be incredibly time-consuming to match the soundless footage with what was in the script. Tan is definitely interested, though resistant, to the idea of dubbing it, since it could very easily feel tacky. She does, however, think it could work as a silent film.

At this point, though, she’s happy that “Shirkers” (the documentary) can serve as an inspiration for people to finish their own long-gestating projects, especially people who don’t live in filmmaking hubs like New York or Los Angeles. When it debuts on Netflix Oct. 26, it will be available in 195 countries and 25 languages.

“I just want people to watch this movie, people [from] small places like me,” she said.

The IDA Documentary Screening Series brings some of the year’s most acclaimed documentary films to the IDA community and members of industry guilds and organizations. Films selected for the Series receive exclusive access to an audience of tastemakers and doc lovers during the important Awards campaigning season from September through November. For more information about the series, and a complete schedule, visit IDA.

‘Shirkers’ Trailer: Sandi Tan Goes Searching For Her Own Lost Film in Netflix’s Unique Sundance-Winning Documentary

Exclusive: When Sandi Tan was just a budding teenage filmmaker, she made a film. Over two decades later, she went looking for it.

Not all lost films have to stay that way, such is the unexpected lesson of Sandi Tan’s captivating new documentary, “Shirkers,” in which the filmmaker literally goes looking for her own lost creations. The inventive doc stretches back to 1992, when Tan (then a budding teen filmmaker) and her friends shot a wild indie movie in Singapore with the help of their American mentor, who later disappeared…with all the footage.

The first half of Tan’s documentary is mostly consumed with telegraphing that story (fascinating on its own), but then picks up two decades later, when Tan hits the road to unravel the mystery of this unexpected thievery and finds that there was much more to the story than she imagined. It’s a zippy, pleasing movie for cinephiles of every stripe (and both teen Tan and her current version are steady, smart protagonists), but it also packs a fascinating mystery told with a unique sensitivity.

Read More: 9 Female-Directed Films to See This Season, From ‘Destroyer’ to ‘Capernaum’ and More

The documentary debuted earlier this year in Sundance’s World Cinema competition section, where it picked up an win for Tan as Best Director in the section. A month later, Netflix snapped it up for a streaming deal that should put it in front of the eyeballs of its target audience: obsessive movie-watchers who love a good yarn.

Netflix will launch “Shirkers” globally on Friday, October 26. It will next screen in NYC at Rooftop Films on Thursday, September 20. Check out IndieWire’s exclusive poster and first trailer below.

Film Review: ‘Shirkers’

There’s an alternate universe where Sandi Tan, a movie-crazy teenager from Singapore, burst onto the scene with her two young collaborators in 1992, forging an independent film movement in a country where none had existed. That dream ended when the mysterious director they were working with absconded with 70 16mm film canisters, which only recently surfaced […]

There’s an alternate universe where Sandi Tan, a movie-crazy teenager from Singapore, burst onto the scene with her two young collaborators in 1992, forging an independent film movement in a country where none had existed. That dream ended when the mysterious director they were working with absconded with 70 16mm film canisters, which only recently surfaced […]

Sundance Award-Winning Doc ‘Shirkers’ Lands at Netflix

Netflix announced Wednesday that it has acquired worldwide rights to Sandi Tan’s documentary feature “Shirkers,” which won the Directing Award in World Cinema Documentary following its world premiere at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival. The film screened to great acclaim and will next be shown at the True/False Film Festival in Columbia, Missouri, on March 2.

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.

Also Read: Netflix in February: What’s Coming and What to Watch Before It’s Gone (Photos)

Netflix also announced Wednesday that it has acquired “Zion,” a 10-minute film directed by Floyd Russ about a young wrestler who was born without legs and finds acceptance and community within the world of wrestling.

Clark, who grew up in foster care, began wrestling in second grade against his able-bodied peers. The physical challenge became a therapeutic outlet and gave him a sense of family. Moving from foster home to foster home, wrestling became the only constant thing in his childhood.

Josh Braun of Submarine negotiated the “Shirkers” deal on behalf of the filmmakers.

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Netflix announced Wednesday that it has acquired worldwide rights to Sandi Tan’s documentary feature “Shirkers,” which won the Directing Award in World Cinema Documentary following its world premiere at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival. The film screened to great acclaim and will next be shown at the True/False Film Festival in Columbia, Missouri, on March 2.

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 also announced Wednesday that it has acquired “Zion,” a 10-minute film directed by Floyd Russ about a young wrestler who was born without legs and finds acceptance and community within the world of wrestling.

Clark, who grew up in foster care, began wrestling in second grade against his able-bodied peers. The physical challenge became a therapeutic outlet and gave him a sense of family. Moving from foster home to foster home, wrestling became the only constant thing in his childhood.

Josh Braun of Submarine negotiated the “Shirkers” deal on behalf of the filmmakers.

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Steve Martin and Martin Short Announce Netflix Comedy Special

No Chill: Netflix Hits New Stock High, Again

'Queer Eye' Fab Five Give Netflix IT Department a Facelift: 'We Love Nerds' (Video)

Here's When Netflix Is Dropping 'Fauda' Season 2 (Exclusive)