For Sandi Tan, making a road movie with her friends as a teenager was like being a superhero for one fateful summer. “Our secret superhero identity was ripped away from us, and we all became mortal again,” she recalls to EW two and a half decades later. “But we still remember what it was like to fly.”
Tan’s new documentary Shirkers, out now on Netflix and in select theaters, tells the story of the road movie Tan and her friends filmed in Singapore during that summer of 1992, only to have the ultimate satisfaction of releasing the film thwarted by their enigmatic American mentor, a man named Georges Cardona. The superhero metaphor isn’t too far-fetched considering that, in spite of their youth and inexperience, Tan and her best friends, Jasmine Ng and Sophie Siddique, managed to negotiate free equipment from Kodak and shoot in around 100 locations, with as many actors, all in two and a half months. “I was probably like some insane Captain Ahab just trying to get the white whale,” Tan says.
And just like Ahab, Tan never quite caught the whale: After she and her friends finished shooting their film, they entrusted Cardona with the dozens of Super 8 canisters that made up Shirkers so he could edit the footage, but he never did. He evaded their calls, moved out of the country, and they eventually lost touch with him completely. They tried to forget about Shirkers, until nearly 20 years later, when Tan began receiving the long-lost canisters by mail, along with the news that Cardona had died.
Tan kept the canisters stacked in her house like a “vertical coffin” for three years. She knew that once she opened them, they would consume her. She finally got the film reels digitized by an experienced colorist, whose jaw dropped. “I knew what we went through was quite an adventure,” Tan says. “But I didn’t know if the outer world would think so.” Now that she did, Tan knew she had to make something out of it.
The footage’s accompanying sound files had been lost, so completing the film as originally intended was out of the question. Instead, Tan turned it into an inventive hybrid documentary that’s striking in its dreamy color palette and powerfully illustrative of what Tan and her friends lost. At one point in the documentary, Tan talks to a film critic friend in Singapore, who says that if Shirkers has been properly released, it might have made a mark on the country’s cinematic history. “It could’ve been some kind of landmark work, or dismissed as an eccentric folly,” Tan says. “Either way, it still would’ve been something.”
While Cardona was a driving force behind the women’s misfortune, Tan made sure he wasn’t the focus of the documentary. “I [wasn’t] going to let him hijack the story a second time,” she says. Shirkers depicts Cardona as a sort of creative vampire, ruining the art of young people more talented than him. “He was a creative person who could not create,” Tan says. “He creates by destroying.”
But Shirkers is not a tragedy. What makes the documentary so special, and ultimately inspiring, is how three young women turned a traumatic experience into a lifelong bond and a passion for filmmaking. Tan’s present-day interviews with Ng and Siddique make this clear. Ng talks to Tan more like a sibling than a colleague as they argue and criticize one another, seemingly reverting back to their teenage selves. “I think it’s very important to show what it’s like to have these long female friendships,” Tan says. “The real textures of these things is rarely depicted on screen.”
Their conversations also show how, rather than discouraging them, the loss of Shirkers fanned their creative flame. “Having not achieved Shirkers at that point… it’s the one thing that’s kept our belief in the movies alive,” Tan says. “I don’t know if that would’ve been true if the film had been made.”
Tan hopes the documentary will motivate others to keep their creative dreams alive. “After every screening, people are vibrating with wanting to [create something of their own],” she says. “If we can carry that energy throughout the world when people are watching the film, then I’ve succeeded beyond my wildest dreams.”
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