Two-thirds of the way through Shirkers I was ready to shirk.
The protagonist, Sandi Tan, was not that likeable and the villain, Georges Cardonas, not that interesting. The story seemed nauseatingly melodramatic. In 1992 then forty-year old Cardonas disappeared with the raw footage of a film, Shirkers, that then nineteen-year old Tan and contemporaries Jasmin Ng and Sophie Siddique had wanted to make with him in Singapore. Distraught, they eventually get on with life, albeit without some of their “spirit”, says Siddique. In 2011 after Cardonas’s death, Tan finds the original footage he had painstakingly preserved. And thus is born Shirkers, the 2018 documentary about Shirkers, the 1992 fictional film never finished.
The original Shirkers was to be our city-state’s first indie film, one of several suggestions—that flit between irony and vaingloriousness—that Tan and crew were pioneering artistic prodigies in a hopelessly stuffy society.
Tan’s mentor, director and collaborator made off with their collective work, snuffing out her teenage silver screen dreams. Tough, even heartbreaking. But there seemed a limit to how much sympathy one could feel about a summer project by privileged students matriculating at some of the best universities in the UK and US.
In one scene Siddique writes letters to equipment suppliers, trying to sound like a seasoned, older producer. They ultimately get to use cameras sponsored by Kodak. In another the production is in danger of stalling for lack of funds—so the scheming Cardonas convinces Siddique and Tan to withdraw S$10,000 from their ATMs.
Tan presents both incidents as evidence of their steely resolve and resourcefulness. Yet both could be seen through the prism of privilege—did things come that easily to them? They could only drain their “life savings” because of, presumably, bountiful parental backstops.
I wasn’t convinced there was enough here for a film. There is a surfeit of good content out there competing for our time. The Shirkers plot is not nearly as compelling as other investigative excavations (am on The Innocent Man now). Cardonas is a cardboard character, a caricature of the talentless neo-colonial out to plunder fawning Asians. He has nothing on the gloriously complex anti-heros and nut jobs being revived on screen—like Darren Criss as Andrew Cunanan, Gianni Versace’s killer. If artistic theft was the point, then Big Eyes was the better story; if artistic rehabilitation, then Searching for Sugar Man.
Shirkers seemed valuable only for its widely-acclaimed documenting of a Singapore now gone. But even that ultimately depressed me. Sure, all Singaporeans know that our city’s facade is relentlessly changing, that no structure is safe from the wrecking ball of insatiable GDP growth (except for a few holy shrines, like the one on 38 Oxley Road). Yet seeing footage from 1992 is like entering a developmental time warp—surely we couldn’t have destroyed all that in just twenty-six years?
Worse, perhaps, is the realisation that few people care. By 1992 (already rich) Singapore probably had a higher fancy-video-camera-per-capita rate than anywhere else on earth. Was nobody filming Singapore? Why is the Shirkers footage treasured like some ancient Hikayat?
I grumpily stayed awake through these grievance and somehow, in the last thirty minutes, the film came together for me. It clicked. It works. I’m a fan.