Netflix releases Shirkers, an award-winning documentary by Singaporean Sandi Tan. Premiered at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival, the film traces the theft of Tan’s first feature of the same name and its subsequent return 20 years later. Back in 1992, Tan was urged by her film production teacher, Georges Cardona, to make Shirkers—a story about a teenage serial killer. Roping in her classmates and friends, Jasmine Ng and Sophie Siddique, to help with the production, Shirkers was shot but before it could be edited, Cardona disappeared with the footage.
In revisiting a pivotal point in her life, the documentary showcases the behind-the-scenes of what was potentially Singapore’s first indie film, a peek into the time capsule of Singapore’s past, and an investigation into Cardona’s motivations for what he did. Tan was in town recently, where she espouses more on the long and winding road of Shirkers.
ESQ: How much film did you shoot back then?
SANDI TAN: We had 700 minutes of 16mm footage. It was 1992 and a few people had video cameras at the time. It was very expensive and there weren't any cellphones. We had to be very creative with the footage that we had.
ESQ: Are you an ardent cataloguer?
SANDI TAN: I wrote a lot of letters instead of journaling or having a diary. I was always noticing things and writing them down. When you're a teenager, the world is moving so quickly around you and you are obsessed with gathering and putting your thoughts down to paper. My mind is constantly dancing and I slept very little; I was really hyper so I just wound up having to write as a release.
I was always working on manuscripts and mini projects and Shirkers was just one of those scripts that I was working at the time. It so happened that Georges Cardona, our film production teacher, read my first draft and wanted to shoot it.
ESQ: No rewrites?
SANDI TAN: No, he wanted that spontaneity that was the first draft. In hindsight that was a little crazy but looking at the script today, there was, perhaps, something very unfiltered and unspoilt about it. With a redraft, a lot of the specialness might have been taken away. Were there a redraft, we wouldn't have shot the largest dog in Singapore.
ESQ: This entire premise of Shirkers is completely bonkers.
SANDI TAN: The story itself was pretty much stranger than fiction. You tell the story in the best way you can as a filmmaker but there was no need to make up anything because the truth was so much weirder than anything that we could have made up. That's one of the fun things in documentaries now—that so many of the stories that we see these days are so much interesting than what we create from scratch.
ESQ: In piecing together the documentary, were there stuff you couldn't include…?
SANDI TAN: There was a lot of stuff we couldn't put in. This story has so many angles and segues and digressions that we couldn’t fit all of them in so, of course, some storylines had to be left out. It took months to find a perfect form for the documentary.
ESQ: We understand that when your footage was stolen, it left you deflated.
SANDI TAN: You’ve to remember that it was 1992 and nobody was filming an indie film of this nature. It was very difficult to make a film then—we shot in 16mm, not video; we had to ask Kodak for free film; we got free equipment.
The filming of the original Shirkers was such a huge undertaking that when it was stolen, it saps a lot of your energy and splintered the team. The people that worked with you; people that you convinced to work for free; all who have taken time off their own jobs to act in this silly film… a lot of goodwill was ruined. Even though it wasn't our fault that the footage was stolen, we felt that we were responsible.
ESQ: What went through your head when Georges’ widow sent you your reels back?
SANDI TAN: I knew that this was the end, that this was going to be the real thing. But I knew that this was going to be a Pandora's box because this is not a causal opening—once I open up these boxes, it will be an obsession that will keep me occupied for the next few years. It'll take me down the rabbit hole, where you've to deal with its contents, you've got to do something with it.
It took me about three years before I had the fortitude to open up these boxes and then, it took another two years to make the documentary.
ESQ: How did the idea for the documentary coalesce?
SANDI TAN: It was in 2015 when I took the reels to a lab in Burbank, California where they transferred the reels to digital so we can see what they look like. The footage was kinda amazing. I was sitting next to a colourist who worked on a lot of Criterion Blu-rays and these people are so used at seeing amazing images but when they saw the transferred images, their jaws dropped. They couldn't believe that this was shot 20 years ago and they couldn’t believe the whole story surrounding it.
Then, by accident, I met Iris Ng, the cinematographer, who also shot Sarah Polley's film, Stories We Tell. We talked about this idea to shoot a documentary for a little bit and she said, "let's go to Singapore and grab some interviews." We did that, got some really amazing stuff from a lot of different characters and I looked at this and thought, there's something here.
We cut a trailer of what we had and a shape was taking place. People got excited when they watch it and that's when I knew that we have something that would speak to people, not just in Singapore but everywhere else.
ESQ: The people that knew Georges’, were they resistant to being interviewed?
SANDI TAN: Of course. Much so, when you’re persuading anyone to be in a documentary about Georges, who was a polarising figure, shall we say? It was a painful thing for a lot of the participants. It was a challenge but we managed to convince them to be open and be part of the project.
ESQ: We understand that you didn't come into this thinking Georges is the villain…
SANDI TAN: I don't believe he's a villain. He's my nemesis.
ESQ: But do you have a sense of who he is? After all, the only definite answer would be to actually hear it from the person himself…
SANDI TAN: Yeah. He's a classic American archetype even though he wasn't traditional American. I think he was an immigrant who created himself from all his favourite parts from cinema, movie characters, who aren’t necessarily the most heroic ones or the most likeable ones. That's his identity and it's fascinating. There are a lot of people like that in the world. I think that's my portrait of him.
ESQ: After the incident of your stolen footage, do you have trust issues?
SANDI TAN: Working in the creative fields in the US, one cannot be too paranoid. It'll happen over and over again in different forms. People will steal your ideas if you work in movies. It's an on-going thing but that's what it is; you just have to be on guard. But this shouldn't stop you from doing anything or to be cynical. You'll need to be optimistic and be brave when you're doing something creative.
ESQ: Other than you, the only other person who wrote for The Straits Times and is a filmmaker is Kelvin Tong.
SANDI TAN: I did it backwards—I made Shirkers then moved to the print medium; Kelvin wrote for the papers before going into film. And I got Kelvin that writing job for The Straits Times. I was writing about movies for them and I gave it to him because he was a friend. For me, writing about movies… it's the closest I can get to film because there was nothing going on in Singapore.
ESQ: You're based in LA; have you considered doing a film in Singapore?
SANDI TAN: I've lived in the US for so long so my projects tend to be Americanised but I'll never say no to shooting in Singapore or something Singapore-centric. The world is so small, you can work anywhere; the borders are quite porous now.
ESQ: What else are you doing aside from films and books?
SANDI TAN: I was working on a graphic novel with Tomer Hanuka, who created the movie poster for Shirkers but I got too busy. When it comes to storytelling, it doesn't matter which medium you're doing.
ESQ: How did you feel reviewing your original film of Shirkers?
SANDI TAN: I was in awe of our teenage selves. The fact that we were intrepid, we weren't thinking about limits. Nobody was telling us no. We went to all these crazy places, sitting on railway tracks, going to the highways that haven't been opened yet, sitting in the middle of the roads. No proper adult supervision. I mean… if we’d told our parents what we were doing, they would have stopped us but I'm so glad we've done this.
ESQ: The documentary also touches on your relationships with Jasmine and Sophie. In your interviews with Jasmine, it seems your relationship… is a little passive-aggressive?
SANDI TAN: That's how we interact. It's a real credit to our DP, Iris, who is a tiny person who becomes even tinier when she's shooting with this huge camera; she basically vanished into the corner when she was filming Jasmine talking to me. When Jasmine talks to me, thinking there's no one else in the room, she sounds just like that in the documentary. That's actually one of the nicer things that she says.
But that's how we talk and the show is a testament to what a dark force Shirkers was in all our lives. Because even talking about it, decades later, it's still a flare-up. There are fingers pointing. Jasmine still blaming me for Georges stealing the film, that sort of thing.
We’ve maintained our own points of view. I think some friendships are like that, right? Never the twain shall meet, you know; you just believed what you believe and that's the way it is.
ESQ: So, what’s the relationship now with Jasmine and Sophie?
SANDI TAN: We weren't that close in the interim period but this documentary was my excuse, really, to keep in touch with them again. The fact that these footages re-emerged and me wanting to make this film is my excuse to say hi to these two people, who are living in different parts of the world. We hadn't been in the same room together in 20 years until we showed it at Sundance. It's been that long. It's a mix-bag but we're bound by this film.
ESQ: For better or worse.
SANDI TAN: Yeah. Sophie is unable to join us for the premiere tomorrow but I've been doing a lot of the events with her in New York because that's close to where she is. People love her. Young women see themselves in us in the documentary.
ESQ: So, you've been travelling a lot.
SANDI TAN: Last weekend I was in London, then I went back to LA, and then New York. Then it's back to LA to do something and then I'm in Singapore until Sunday and I'm off to LA and then to New York again. The trick is to keep going. If you stop, you'll crash.
ESQ: So far, so good.
SANDI TAN: It's a long road. This is just the beginning.
Shirkers is now out on Netflix. Photos courtesy of Netflix.