Could there be a more winsome documentary this year than Sandi Tan’s Shirkers? This is a somewhat rhetorical question, given that the year is almost over, but not a facetious one. Shirkers, which has just made the Oscar documentary shortlist competing for the award with fourteen other films, is an irresistible mix of insouciance and precocious maturity. Much of its charm lies in Tan’s ironic irreverence as the film’s narrator.
In the present, we meet the adult Tan, who announces in voiceover that she is taking us back to her adolescence, and to the events that she cannot stop thinking about. Via narrated flashbacks, and with the help of her own older video footage, and some archival images, Tan then depicts a gang of three friends in Singapore — Sandi (Tan herself), Sophie (Sophia Hiddique Harvey) and Jasmine (Jasmine Kin Kia Ng) — who in the summer of 1992, when Tan is eighteen, decide to make a movie. Even before that decision is made though, the three are seriously obsessed with film. Tan writes for a pop culture zine, BigO, and then as film critic for Singapore’s Straits Times. BigO’s founder, Philip Chea, appears on camera to comment. Here Tan alternates older footage of her hometown, of the zines and the artifacts of her teenagehood, with present-day interviews, including with now grown up Sophie and Jasmine. What emerges is the story of ultimate geekiness, as Tan sketches a portrait of her younger self, someone who believed in “freedom by building worlds inside your head” and “that little kids had the answers to everything.”
Shirkers contains more than a hint of affinity to Wes Anderson. (Indeed, a clip from Anderson’s Rushmore (1998) is shown briefly.) There is the nerdiness, worn as a badge of honor, the utter fearlessness in the face of being perceived as somehow uncool, but also a slight melancholy that comes from being so young, so bright, and so rejected. No wonder there is a recurring motif of breaking out, of escape, be it physically or metaphorically. Tan tells us how, when BigO spurns her ideas, the trio strikes out on its own: “We created an elaborate collage for BigO,” Tan says, “which they all hated.” This line in the voiceover is broken up by a pause, a mechanism that Tan skillfully deploys again and again, creating her own unique, weighty cadence. Tan adds: “We were too punk for them. They were a lame boys club anyway.” Thus Tan draws us into her film’s feminist sportsmanship: a desire to be acknowledged as equal to men, and if not, to outdo them (if you can’t join them, beat them). In other moments, Tan skillfully ups the ante, as when she tells us: “When I was 18 I had so many ideas I hardly slept [pause] at all.” Hers is a voice tuned in to its own exaltations, one that delights in performativity and audience, egging us on, as she dares herself to man up.
There is also Anderson’s creed in the film’s set design. In the present, we see the adult, more matter-of-fact Tan in a cab where she announces to the camera that she is about to take us down memory lane searching for clues to her past. But the artifacts from her teenagehood could have sprung up on an Anderson set: there are the bright colors of the original film that Tan and her friends made that summer of 1992 on Kodak 35mm film and the clothes and costumes that are childish yet cute and stylishly curated. Like Anderson’s Europe, Tan’s Singapore is “a time capsule of Singapore both real and imaginary.” In the film within the film Tan plays the main role: A sixteen-year-old killer who, as Tan tells us, goes on a spree in a sci-fi scenario. We don’t learn much of the main story, however, since Tan’s telling veers to the complex relationships that surrounded the production.
Lest we think that that jaunt down memory lane is all one unending pop-culture binge in a marzipan-colored girlhood sprinkled with imaginary friends and effortless fandom, the story does take a darker turn. Via archival footage the fourth protagonist steps in: Georges (Georges Cardona), a charismatic American who teaches film production in Singapore, and draws the trio into his inner circle. Georges is a somber figure. Sophia describes him as a study of contrasts: soft, warm voice, cold eyes. A man who made you feel like he was lavishing his attention on you. Who spent nights engaging students in discussions, revered Herzog and the French New Wave, had a wife and a small child. Tan delivers this information quickly, in shortcuts or asides. Georges, after all, is not so much a real fleshed out portrait, but a fake hero of his own making.
And that hero’s image slowly darkens. There is a road trip with Tan to the United States, and the details of their awkward, though collegiate, coexistence. There is finally the film that Tan and her friends make, a sure sign of their willfulness and poise — which quickly ends up in Georges’ paternalistic and nefarious hands. Tan has a supreme sense of tempo, and her voice, on one hand assuring us that it all turned out alright — the girls grew up and are here to tell the tale — also knows how to pull us into the mystery, a detective on the trail of her own undoing. There is, moreover, an undertone of smartening in the tale. From the beginning, clues that point to Georges’s egomaniacal persona — clues that Tan did not want to see — loom larger as the film goes on and reflect her initial naiveté. Sophie and Jasmine were more practical, less trustful, but the young Sandi was always rushing into some Pynchonesque intrigue, like Alice in Wonderland, chasing rabbits.
While the results of Georges’s machinations are grim, the telling brims with delight. Its joy ultimately stems from the medium of cinema itself. To this end, Tan includes archival photos from the original shoot, in which we see her young, even adolescent crew, the storyboards, costumes, the pages from the script, now read out loud by Tan in the voiceover. There are also the locations: a Singapore of small local shops, which Tan says, “I knew would disappear very soon.” Titillating shreds of the story appear via surviving footage: a little brother who rides around on an impossibly small red bike, a mom who “loves to smoke and watch TV.” We can only dream with Tan about what all this may have added up to it (and by all means, Tan leaves open the possibility that it might have turned out a bit disastrous, or unwieldy, but that is not the point). In the end, she invites us to peep into her adolescence’s attic, where the past has been waiting. It returns as a fairytale, bearing its own subconscious portents. The film ultimately becomes an adventure with Lolita-like cautionary undertones, in which Georges is the creepy avuncular figure. As Tan says, a “Nosferatu, trying to keep immortal, by feeding on young people’s dreams.” After Georges absconds, taking with him the rolls of Tan and her friends’ film, and Tan catches up with his trail only many years later, we are once again pulled into a mystery — this time Georges’s as a fake persona, yet having a real life. And it here that Tan, who never got to launch that very first film, makes it clear that her determination to be the heroine finally pays off. She has, after all, a pungent story to tell. She gets the last word.
The film Shirkers circulated through several film worldwide film festivals throughout 2018 and is out now on Netflix.