Shirkers

a film by Sandi Tan

I just finished this film, like I literally just turned off the TV and thought, I need to write a review of this. I thought it was really good — is it okay to say that outright in a review? I thought what made it good wasn’t as much the actual documentary, though Tan made some really interesting parallels between stuff her mentor, Georges Cardona, said about himself and movies, and her film wasn’t afraid to go to uncomfortable places in the interviews with her friends who worked with her on the film and who called her out for being an asshole. What caught my interest completely about Shirkers, however, was the way it explored nostalgia.

Going to bed after the movie, R told me that it made her remember how, even though she herself is in her thirties, she still thinks of herself as nineteen. And I think of my mother, telling me that she felt the same way when I told her I couldn’t imagine myself being any older. For Sandi Tan, part of her will always be nineteen because that’s when she made this film and when she lost the film that represented the sum total of her life. The act of making the documentary about that period is, I think, a way to exorcise those memories — okay, let me back up.

What happened is this: Sandi Tan and her friends, Jasmine Ng and Sophie Siddique, along with an older man named Georges Cardona, made a film in 1992 called Shirkers. After the film wrapped, Georges took the 70 cans of film and said he’d edit them and finish the movie and they never heard from him again. So there’s a phantom limb there. Sophie says toward the end of the movie that the movie exists, but it doesn’t exist. It exists in their heads and in their hearts but it will never really exist.

Except — spoiler — years later, like 25 years later, Georges’s widow called Sandi and said she found the 70 cans and sent them to her so we’re able to see the film. And it’s absolutely beautiful. The composition of the shots, the colors, the acting (what I could see of it), it looked like one of those movies that, had it been made, would be a standard film-buff-type movie that people see (like, Criterion would have a copy, for sure).

But it wasn’t made, and the three girls grew up and the three women lived their lives and when it was found, it couldn’t be made, so Sandi Tan took the footage and interviewed all the people and re-created the feeling of the movie without actually making the movie. It’s a perfect case study in the function and machinations of nostalgia.

— So the movie is a way to exorcise the memories of the stressful, annoying summer (as Jasmine Ng puts it) and seek some closure to what, ultimately, was a traumatic event in Tan’s young life. You can tell she’s nostalgic for the Singapore of Shirkers, for being younger, for having her life in front of her. And making the documentary Shirkers has been painful, I think, for her. The movie made me nostalgic for a place I’ve never been in a year I was barely alive in, though, and I felt that pain too. So that’s something.