Review: Sandi Tan's Documentary 'Shirkers' is a Refreshing Revelation
by Alex Billington
October 28, 2018
"How could it have disappeared?" Holy moley this film is amazing!! I'm stunned. Sandi Tan's documentary Shirkers is one of the best documentaries of the year. Hands down, no question. All of the ingenuity. The honesty. The cats. The ghost story. The footage. The creativity. Just phenomenal. I seriously got the chills and was tearing up by the end. It's such a beautiful, breathtaking, refreshing film. It's so uniquely creative in the way it's structured, and is also complex in handling all the aspects of past and present. But Sandi has it all in her mind and she spent years putting it together and it's pretty much perfect. It's a total film nerd film in so many ways (they aspired to be the "Coen Sisters", to premiere at Cannes, and they despised cheesy Hollywood movies). It's invigorating, infuriating, fascinating, and inspiring. I loved every last second of it.
Like most great films, it's very hard to describe Shirkers. Made by Sandi Tan, who grew up in Singapore, the film is about how she decided to make a feature film with her friends while they were teenagers living in Singapore. They met a mysterious guy named Georges Cardona, who helped them produce and direct the film. After finishing production, he disappeared - taking the film with him. For the next twenty years, they tried to forget their experiences, believing that the film was lost forever. Until it one day showed up again. Sandi recovered the original reels, which remarkably were carefully preserved, and spent years struggling with how to deal with this return to her past. So she decided to make this documentary, looking back at what happened and how it changed them. Shirkers won the Directing Award in the World Cinema Documentary category at the Sundance Film Festival in January - and it couldn't be more deserving of that recognition.
I spent two full minutes laughing at the random 1/2 second shot she left in of that other filmmaker guy (who went through a similar story as she did with Georges) getting scared by the cat on his table. It's just a funny, nothing shot, but it's in there. I mean, that moment is right when it really hit me and my mind just flipped and admitted - this is brilliant. Really. Decades of intense feelings and emotions and passion and memories and lives lived, all worked into this one spectacular film, the culmination of ALL of that distilled down into a 96 minute unforgettable cinematic experience. To imagine all the time it has taken her to prepare her mind to do this, to spend the time to make this and tell this story like she does. With so much confidence, and grace, with so much openness and boundless honesty. We can all learn so much from Sandi in this. We can gain wisdom from her storytelling techniques here - the way she speaks about herself and reflects on herself.
The many moments throughout with her two other friends, Jasmine and Sophie, talking back to her across the camera are also just perfect. First things first, it's great that Sandi keeps all this in the film and doesn't shy away from it. But on top of that, it's the banter between them, their immeasurably deep connection and comfort in sharing themselves in these conversations. The years and years of friendship. The way the other person can see the truth that the other sometimes can't. And how they push back and learn from each other instantly as they're talking and going through these moments, on camera now. It's exciting to watch them. I got a bit giddy every time they would cut back to Jasmine because I know there'd be something biting (and maybe even brutal) but important coming out of their next chat, she doesn't accept any of her bullshit. Ha.
The other brilliant aspect of the film is the interplay and editing between the footage of the actual Shirkers film they made years ago, and the current story she's trying to tell through the documentary. It's a delicate balance, but it's also perfectly handled. As the three women say near the end, the film exists, it really does - it exists within them. Even though it never was finished or released, Sophie explains that there is this feeling that it is a part of Singapore's cinema history. And now it also exists within the frames, within the layers of this new film as well. After watching this, I felt like I had seen two complete films - the original Shirkers as they shot and envisioned it. And this new documentary, a much more meta archival + narrative + cathartic + historic examination of what happened and where they are now. And how it affected them, good and bad. That's a tremendous achievement to pull off this ambitious amalgamation of everything - past and present.
It's an achievement to establish and maintain that balance so consistently throughout, to give us just enough of both narratives to naturally feel like we've become a part of her experience. And to feel like we, as the audience/viewer, can understand all that she has been through and all that she was hoping to achieve by making the original Shirkers film. Sandi has to come to grips with her past. And she has to examine how she felt and what her mind was like when she was younger making the film. Then compare that to what she has learned now as she has grown up; in trying to forget and move on, and in considering what she has learned as she has become an adult. Both of these sides (of history) have to confront each other, and they do, and Sandi handles it maturely by letting the filmmaking be the conversation between them. And it's wonderful.
Between this film and Bing Liu's Minding the Gap, both of which came out of the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, these documentaries have seriously set (or actually - reset) a high bar for very honest, very personal, very reflective humanist filmmaking that rivals even the best feature films. Bing and Sandi, thank you. Thank you for being so honest and open and vulnerable, and thank you for being brave enough to put so much of yourself into these films. Telling your own story and examining your own insecurities is not easy. And thank you for being so caring and thoughtful as filmmakers in telling such riveting, emotional stories about the people around you. This is the kind of beautiful filmmaking that can change lives, that can show us how to be better, and inspire us to keep living our own lives with honesty and humility and zealousness.
Alex's Rating: 10 out of 10
Follow Alex on Twitter - @firstshowing