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“Shirkers” — A Stolen Movie Filmed 26 Years Ago Finally Screens On Netflix

By Renée Batchelor

Felicia Yap

I grew up in Singapore in the ’90s, coming of age in the latter half of the decade. It wasn’t easy to have fun then, so a lot of entertainment was self-created. Movies, books and albums were hard to get hold of, making them all the more precious. For the artistic soul who was not bound by the staidness of the city, the desire to experience “culture” and to create was always burning within.

Singapore was a different city then. While poised for economic greatness and still pristine on the surface, there was a sense of grittiness underneath its glossy veneer — if you knew where to look. And somewhere, a young Sandi Tan, wanted to capture the beauty and complexity of a fast-disappearing Singapore on film. Tan and her friends Jasmine Ng and Sophie Siddique, along with Georges Cardona — whom they met as an instructor at a filmmaking course in The Substation — decided to make a film. And “Shirkers” was born.

Tan wrote a script borne of her obsessions at that time, wanting to make Singapore look breathtaking on film. She also knew it was an uphill task. “I mean, of course, Singapore is flat and its tourist brochure patter was as bland as can be, so there lies the humour and the irony of my project. I was fully aware of the irony. Singapore was at a crossroads back in the early 1990s, poised between a more relaxed Southeast Asian identity and a global economic powerhouse with boundless ambition. This transformation would occur in the blink of an eye if nobody bothered to grab hold of these precious shards. And that’s exactly what I tried to do,” she explains.

Jasmine Ng/ Stefan Khoo Studio for NetflixOn the left, Jasmine Ng who appears in "Shirkers"; director Sandi Tan.
On the left, Jasmine Ng who appears in "Shirkers"; director Sandi Tan.

The reason the film 
only appears in
 snatches? Once filming wrapped, Cardona, who was 
supposed to process the film for Ng to edit, absconded with the footage, never to be seen again by the people involved in “Shirkers”. Until nearly 25 years later when Cardona’s ex-wife informed Tan of his death and handed over the film cans, all lovingly preserved. All audio recordings from the film were lost, and when seen through the lens of time and experience, it was clear that the movie would have been a significant milestone in Singapore’s film history had it seen the light of day in its time.

“I'm guessing the reason why, for many Singaporeans watching the film, they might connect more deeply with the old film footage is not so much about what I call nostalgia-porn, but that sense of loss, [of] what we gave up when we don’t care, and how with relationships, that grief can be a mournful thing, or it can be transformed and channelled into what decisions you make next. The film does that, it makes something new out of what was lost— and that sense that we own it, even when buildings are razed, people have passed — that your spirit refuses to be erased,” explains Ng.

An email exchange between T Singapore and Tan, who won the Sundance Directing award for World Cinema Documentary for “Shirkers”, as well as Ng, a filmmaker and activist, offers up their versions of what happened between the time the film was originally shot and when it finally hit the screens.

RENÉE BATCHELOR: How did your involvement in the original project begin?

SANDI TAN: The premise of the original “Shirkers” was concocted from my obsessions at the time: Road movies, assassin movies, the French New Wave and the desire to stuff all the faces and little-known places I cared about in Singapore into a work that could be shared with the rest of the world.

It was my strange Valentine to a Singapore I could tell was already disappearing before our eyes: The colourful back alleys of Little India, the farms of Sembawang, the sleepy suburban streets of Siglap, the jungly stretches of Old Holland Road, the mannequin shops of Outram Park. My challenge to myself was for us to make a road movie that made the tiny, sedate city-state of Singapore seem as marvellous as landscapes in a Wim Wenders or Terrence Malick film.

JASMINE NG: Sandi and I had been making
 all kinds of weird wacky projects since secondary school, from fanzines, to sketches, to short films on my Super8 camera. Then in the break before university, a few of us joined a filmmaking course at the Substation in Singapore. That's when we met my good buddy, Sophie Siddique, and a bunch of other new friends who then ended up working with us on “Shirkers”. Georges Cardona was our instructor for that class. And what happened next, is what you will find out in this documentary.

After the Substation class, Sophie, Sandi and I were off to different schools for university, but all of us were still in touch and Sandi wrote a script while she was homesick for Singapore, and that was “Shirkers”. And we said, why not? Let's make it happen. This is in a country where no indie film had been made then and there was no community or industry either. And so we made “Shirkers” version 1.0 — the original film‚ during our school break back in Singapore.

NetflixA still from the movie "Shirkers" (2018) directed by Sandi Tan.
A still from the movie "Shirkers" (2018) directed by Sandi Tan.

RB: In the post #metoo era, what did you make of your older, male mentor, was he perhaps jealous of the exuberance of the young talent he was guiding? Did you ever find it strange that he wanted to be involved in this project?

ST: [It was] not strange he would have wanted to be involved in a project like this. A reminder of context: Nobody was making movies (except the awful Medium Rare) and certainly not from scripts like mine in those days. Furthermore, we had the energy and the drive and the free time and the network of free labour in the form of school friends to pull this steamship over the mountain.

I think he was completely overwhelmed by the task, not having actually completed any film of his own in his entire life. He probably never thought we'd be able to get free film and free equipment, let alone rustle up the talent and the ridiculously specific things my script called for, including ‘a dog the size of a horse’.

JN: I was the one who rang the alarm — and Sophie and I, who were running the production with a team of friends who were volunteering their time, were the ones who said, let's develop and prep the film better, because we are burning out people, and we can make a better film if we put more time and resources into this. (No one was getting paid, and every one took leave from work to do this, except Georges and Sandi who didn't need to work.) But Sophie and I were ignored and rubbished off, and we lost the film. We were asked this at the Sundance premiere screening Q&A, about the #metoo context, and Sandi's response then was that it just so happens to be that we are three girls and so it's coincidental. My response was to trust your gut instinct and don't screw over your friends. Because Sophie and I did see the warning signs and alerted everyone, and the film ended up being stolen from us, because no one believed us.

RB: Many critics found a feminist message in this documentary. What was it like making the film guerilla-style then? Did you have the sense you were doing anything particularly daring or different?

ST: I wouldn't have called us feminists at all. I never thought we were being daring or different — I was pursuing what I was interested in. Georges and I followed our aesthetic impulses, and the rest of the team followed our lead. We did what we did because if you're a creative person and you don't make your own art, and carve out your own universe in Singapore, you'll be engulfed in the whirlpool of petty, bland, quotidian anxieties churning around us and turning extraordinary children into tepid, even soulless adults.

I made zines, I went to movies and concerts and I was still a straight-A student! It is possible, you know. Grown-ups in Singapore need to loosen their diabolical chokehold on their wards. I think that's what made Georges special to us as teenagers — he wasn't judgmental or status-obsessed like the Singaporean grown-ups we knew.
 This was somebody who'd help us transcend 
our risk-averse, arts-fearing environment, and
 help us fulfil our ambition of being filmmakers.

JN: That feminist message that people pick up
 from the film, speaks from the fact that we had
 a motley crew of friends, men and women, girls
 and boys, who agreed to come along on this
 adventure, and there was no hierarchy, no 
posturing around amongst us about who 
deserved to do what, who's entitled to what's
 gender-roled to them, so to speak — so it's 
really that sense of equality and that openness 
and sharing that was kick-ass, and yes, 
feminist. But then that sisterhood, that
 fellowship was broken — and that was a good
 lesson I learnt about human nature. And that makes this current film more 
intriguing and engaging for audiences, who see themselves in us.

RB: The film was very well-received by critics, winning Sandi a directing award 
at Sundance. Do you think the documentary captured that moment in time, or 
perhaps the spirit of the project, authentically? What were your fondest
 memories or the funniest or most absurd moments during the filming process?

ST: I see “Shirkers” (2018) as a kind of a remake of a film that was never
made: I constructed this current film in pretty much the same spirit in which 
the original was made — I assembled my tribe, handpicked from around the 
world, including live-looping Singaporean singer Weish, whose voice was sampled by our Israeli composer Ishai Adar, to create his mesmeric score for the film, Los Angeles sound designer Lawrence Everson and Canadian cinematographer Iris Ng (who also shot the Netflix 
series “Making a Murderer” and Sarah Polley's “Stories We Tell”).

And in bare-bones fashion, I edited the film in my garage with Lucas Celler, a young skateboarder-barista with very little experience, but he had the right can-do spirit and he understood the DIY punk aesthetic of the project, and it's a testament to the magic of cinema — and to filmmaking — that a new tribe of Shirkers was forged, as crazily committed and as brave as the original bunch of Shirkers. The entire team finally met for the first time at the Sundance Film Festival this year!

JN: I'm a filmmaker myself, and for the first time, I got to experience what it's really like to be on the other side of the camera, instead of behind it. It was a really naked and vulnerable place to be, and you see my teenage years, photos and ‘artefacts’ of my family, my life, my private moments in letters and images of my bedrooms across the ’80s and ’90s, all laid out and used in the film.

It made me feel helpless at points, because this other narrative was constructed using my life, and that both made me proud of how I have been able to work on building trusting relationships with the people I feature in my documentary work and how I collaborate on creative projects, and more keen to do better by people in future projects.

Shirkers premieres on Netflix on 26 October.