I never imagined it would end this way.
You’re nineteen and studying abroad in England when the stars and ambitions align to reunite with your best friends in Singapore and make a feature film on summer break. You all give your blood, sweat, tears, and money to the project in order to finish just in time to go back to school with one desire on your minds: delving into the footage the first chance you get. But the man entrusted with your seventy reels doesn’t like writing emails or talking on the phone. So you wait. And wait. And wait. Until a cassette tape arrives with nothing close to news or an update. So you wait again before receiving another audio excerpt with an accusatory tone of betrayal. And then you never hear from him again.
This is the reality Sandi Tan faced in the early 1990s. The man she believed was her cinematic partner and equal (Georges Cardona) absconded with everything they, Sophia Siddique Harvey, Jasmine Kin Kia Ng, and friends created. And yet we see footage from it playing underneath Tan’s present-day narration within a new documentary tracing its legacy that honors its title: Shirkers. So it was eventually discovered, returned, gifted, or whatever for the memories, pain, and sorrow to be partly exorcised decades after they formed. Having those reels digitized and edited together for the first time provided them reason to reunite for an oral history of the outrageous independent film that never was. And it’s an enthralling saga of hubris, ego, sacrifice, and jealousy that surprises at every turn.
Tan goes back to the beginning to explain how she and Jasmine became friends (a union with its own wild history of underground fame at fourteen). From there the pair enrolled in a film class led by Cardona’s charismatic yet dubious “American” figure. As another student taking the course, Sophia would round out the trio of teenage girls Georges handpicks to be his muses, protégées, and companions once the bug of creation takes hold of them all. They talked and drove and came up with wild ideas to help them leave their collective mark within Singapore film lore. But teenagers go to college and Jasmine (New York) and Sophia (Los Angeles) follow Sandi’s lead as far as escaping their island’s borders. So Cardona has to entice them back.
It’s easy to assume something bad is on the horizon thanks to how Tan handles her depiction of Cardona. Where she does broach the subject of his being twice her age and at one point flirtatious, however, the story heads in a different direction. This isn’t to say Georges isn’t an abusive opportunist with a penchant for using and disposing of women he admires, just that you shouldn’t worry about sexual deviancy coming in the way of the humorous and uniquely self-deprecating adventure Sandi has presented. One doesn’t need to commit a heinous crime to leave lasting marks of trauma on his victims, though. And there doesn’t have to only be one villain to the tale—especially when the subject isn’t Tan, but a multi-faceted collaboration.
For some Sandi was the villain. It might take her awhile to accept that role, but those thinking it aren’t wrong. When you have a guy like Cardona controlling matters with her as his closest confidant, it would be strange if Jasmine and Sophia didn’t see themselves on the opposite side doing more work than revealed by the credit received. We learn about fracturing dynamics, infighting, and the strain of a hectic schedule put upon kids who should be having fun. To listen to what they did as complete novices to therefore secure funding and materials is nothing sort of astounding. Thinking about how Georges played them despite that success? It’s enough to make you sick. So to truly know the movie itself, you must also know him.
It’s interesting then to watch how those being interviewed have their own separate roles today just as they did back then. Georges was the overseer, Sandi the creator, Sophia the producer, and Jasmine the tech expert. They each accomplished and saw different things and thus all possess a different piece of the puzzle. So Sophia is able to discuss the nitty gritty of what happened on the ground. Jasmine speaks about the topic of Sandi’s own oppressive hand. And Tan becomes our source on Cardona via memory, detective work, and fate. These three have come together to look back and take stock in what happened by acknowledging their former naiveté and reconciling it with a newfound wealth of information that explains how much was completely outside their control.
The journey will take hold with its comedy—especially when you get Sandi and Jasmine in a room to argue about their differing versions of the past—and refuse to let go once the mystery of the film expands out to encompass that of a man it seems no one ever truly knew. We discover Tan and her friends weren’t alone in what happened (a small consolation compared to their grief) and learn how they’ve grown to become as uniquely special as you would have imagined seeing them conduct themselves as professionals flying by the seat of their pants. Where they went after this debacle proves how it ultimately shaped their trajectories and provided them the life experiences to evolve and come out stronger than before.
But Sandi also makes parallels to movies that inspired them (or were copied by them) and those that triggered her mind to remember. She assesses what they accomplished in the context of Singapore and international cinema, placing Shirkers in its rightful canonical place regardless of whether it earned it at the time. To see the footage now beside a contemporary classic like Rushmore is to wonder what might have been. The stuff about Cardona is obviously the draw and highly captivating in its own right, but the art being unearthed reminds me of A Band Called Death and its prototypical stylistic origin point lost in time. To see Shirkers‘ potential historical importance in hindsight is to weep for those never-made works it wasn’t here to inspire.
courtesy of Netflix