Shirkers, a film about Singapore and life

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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 grievances and somehow, in the last thirty minutes, the film came together for me. It clicked. It works. I’m a fan.

In a city full of Movers and Shakers, as Tan alludes to, this is a story about Shirkers—people who run away. This includes both the fictional characters in the film never made, but the ones making the film too and, perhaps, Cardonas in his final act of absconding. Shirkers, a film about a film, pushes numerous meta-narratives on us.

There is a whimsicality about the characters and cinematography: “think Wong Kar-wai meets Wes Anderson at an Etsy convention”, says RollingStone. Even if the original Shirkers may never have been a great film on par with theirs, there is, in our conforming, controlled society, something to admire in the ambition of those teenage girls.

As inspiration for young people in Singapore, one Shirkers will arguably do more than twenty years of government efforts to “manufacture creativity”. It is already happening overseas.

“I get these kids pledging allegiance to the Shirkers army,” Tan told The Guardian. “At the True/False film festival, all these weeping kids would come up to me after the screening. They weren’t living in cultural centres like LA or New York, and so they were excited to see a film that showed kids living in the middle of nowhere doing something impossible. Teenagers of all ages are moved by this – teenagers who are in their 50s and 60s with unfinished projects are telling me that now they’re going to finish something.”

Shirkers, then, is at once inspiring both for the young and old. In some ways, my thirties have been a depressing time to be a writer in Singapore. It is when many others give up the struggle, sacrificing their undeniable artistic talent for the stability of a regular job. Of course it happens everywhere, but my sense is that in Singapore the material bar is higher, the status competition more intense, such that the space for artistic self-exploration narrows.

Shirkers, and Tan’s delayed success, I hope, will reignite dormant passions here.

Perhaps what I like most is that Shirkers prizes the journey over the destination. The shared experiences, and the bonds formed between friends, are what seemingly matter most to Tan in the end—not the completion of the original film.

That is not to say achievements don’t matter to them. There is a lovely scene where Siddique, being interviewed by Tan, tells her old friend that she has been appointed to serve as Chair of Film Studies at Vassar College where she works. The two friends share a swollen-pride laugh reminiscent of over-achieving school kids on exam results day around Singapore. We made it anyway, seems to be this scene’s relevance to the film.

You can take the person out of Singapore…

 

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