ArtsCinema & TV

The Mystery of Shirkers

To call Shirkers a mystery would be an understatement.

The documentary, now out on Netflix, explores the story behind Sandi Tan’s 1992 would-be film of the same name. Together with her best friends and teacher from film class, they embarked on a two-month long adventure to make Singapore’s first surrealist indie road movie about a serial killer.

Shirkers: Georges Cardona

Just when shooting was over, however, their teacher, Georges Cardona, vanished with the footage. He left no reason for his disappearance and no trace of the film the friends had poured so much into.

Shirkers: Film Rolls

The film answers the questions raised by the disappearance from a surprisingly objective perspective. The level-headed Sandi goes on a road trip again, this time 20 years later, to piece together the puzzle that was her film Shirkers. She meets with previous acquaintances and students of Cardona, attempting to complete the picture of the man she once thought she knew. The movie also manages to remain light-hearted throughout the mystery, and flows with the same childlike wonder that would have inhabited Sandi’s own movie.

Shirkers: Childlike Moments

Nevertheless, it kept me constantly intrigued by the bizarre scenario and character of Cardona, without the need to over-dramatize any elements of the tale.

The documentary definitely gave Sandi and her friends much needed closure on the saga.

And yet, I still have questions.

1. How did they pull off the shoot in the first place?

Shirkers: Filming

Sandi Tan and her friends, Jessica and Sophia, filmed Shirkers back in 1992 after they all had finished their Junior College education. They were all furthering their studies overseas and had two months to film Sandi’s screenplay.

Shirkers: Train Tracks

At that time, the girls did not have professional experience behind the camera, and little to no valuable connections with anyone to assist in the filmography. Additionally, the internet was not a big thing then, and they had to reach out for assistance manually.  They did not have any equipment or cast members to start things off too.

In the film, Sandi and her crew somehow managed to host an audition for the various roles of the film. They even managed to get a deal with Kodak to fully sponsor the necessary camera equipment.

Shirkers: Sandi Directing

The film modestly avoids delving into Sandi’s charisma and ability to direct people, often adults, according to her abstract vision. However, it does depict how the ’90s community spirit in Singapore went a long way to enable the shoot.

Instances of this include a scene that was shot with a group of senior citizens they brought out of an elder care centre for a day, and scenes with large crowds of extras made possible by Sophia faking a seizure.

Shirkers: Nurse

The documentary also depicts certain cast members, such as an employed nurse who were drawn to the project out of curiosity and the desire to try something new.

The simplicity of the time remains a mystery to me.

2. What was the 1992 film even about?

Shirkers: Notes

Another aspect of the story that still leaves me baffled is the plot of Sandi’s 1992 film.

Her movie was centered around a 16-year-old serial killer who roamed the streets of Singapore murdering people and kidnapping children. The story gave no motive behind its characters’ actions. It had no real beginning nor end.

And at the same time, what remains of it is a hauntingly beautiful spectacle to behold.

Shirkers: Plot

The documentary avoids going into the reasoning behind Sandi’s narrative choices. We aren’t the only ones left clueless; even Sandi’s partner-in-crime Sophia is left theorizing the possible subtext in the film to this day.

The ambiguity of the 1992 Shirkers is one-of-a-kind, and will likely always remain a mystery.

3. Why isn’t anyone in Singapore talking about it?

Shirkers: Sandi Tan

Granted, the film only just premiered on 20 October 2018 and was just released on Netflix three days ago, but it still feels underrated here.

The film won Singapore its first best director award at Sundance, a 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and a 5-star review from The Guardian.

As a documentary, it is a tremendous success as it objectively answers the questions it raised previously, while forcing its viewers to ask even more.

Shirkers: Woman on the Streets

How the story of Shirkers remain so unknown in the tiny society of Singapore is strange enough; How it still, despite the critically-acclaimed documentary, has not gotten the recognition it deserves in the public is definitely a mystery.

At the premiere of Shirkers, as part of the Singapore Film Society’s (SFS) 60th-anniversary event, the society’s chairman spoke about what the film meant to Singapore and its film community. He said that the documentary is a celebration of things that have changed (since the time of Sandi’s original film), and the things that will always stay the same.

Shirkers: Sandi and the Nurse

The film contemplates the uncomplicated nature of Singapore before becoming one of the world’s foremost global cities. It also juxtaposes the simplicity of being a child with the complexity of adulthood.

At the same time, it rejoices how friendship, namely that of the three friends, remained the same despite the time they had been apart. Above all else, the documentary shows us how shared experiences and hardships will bond people together, forever.

Visuals courtesy of Netflix.

Jeevan Vishnu

I'm 6'5, 220 - and there's two of me.

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