From Jodorowsky’s Dune to a film about Tim Burton’s cancelled Superman, documentaries about movies that never got made have proved a popular prospect over recent years. Sandi Tan’s energetic Shirkers, ostensibly an entry in this subgenre, differs for a few reasons.
Firstly, it’s directed by the helmer of the original film it concerns, which shares the same name. Secondly, it’s about an independent Singapore-made film the world never got to see, rather than a Hollywood property. Finally, and most crucially, the original Shirkers was actually completed. The reason it was never released is because one strange individual involved in production stole all of the film’s materials once the 1992 shoot had wrapped.
The thief was Georges Cardona, an American citizen teaching film in Singapore, developing a close bond with Tan and friends Jasmine Ng and Sophia Siddique Harvey, who all worked on Shirkers, which Tan directed and starred in at just 16 years old. For two decades, the trio had no closure on why Cardona did what he did or where he went, until the man’s ex-wife contacted Tan and returned all the preserved 70 reels of film, though without the sound recordings. As Tan seeks out people abroad who knew Cardona, she discovers this isn’t the only artistic endeavour he sabotaged.
Shirkers the documentary is assembled from various media, including the previously lost footage, animation, clips from other movies, interviews with former crew, and the odd home movie. The result is like a mystery film as filtered through the aesthetic of a scrapbook or zine, appropriate to the punk spirit of teenage Tan and Ng’s own zine, The Exploding Cat.
Given the contribution the original film should have had to Singapore’s independent film movement, it feels trite to compare the look of the Shirkers footage with American productions that emerged since its early 90s shoot. But Tan openly brings up such comparisons herself, describing how Shirkers, as this spiritual force, sent her distress signals during the years where she’d wanted to forget the whole thing and make peace with a chunk of her life being forever lost – she specifically cites feeling pings upon seeing both Wes Anderson’s Rushmore and Terry Zwigoff’s Ghost World.
Links to other films also come through both details of the documentary’s mystery element and its juxtapositions between footage of both Shirkers and other films. Among Cardona’s various eccentricities were his saying that he inspired James Spader’s character in Sex, Lies and Videotape. Elsewhere, Tan demonstrates that one of the man’s key suggestions for Shirkers in terms of shot composition turned out to be a direct echo of a scene in Paris, Texas, which Tan only discovered upon seeing Wim Wenders’ film years later.
Although revelations are unearthed, Tan’s digging doesn’t necessarily lead to any catharsis where everything is tied up neatly. It does prove therapeutic, though, and very entertaining and moving as a portrait of the effect of – to twist a turn of phrase for a different connotation – an artist being separated from their art. With this new Shirkers, now her feature debut, she’s rebirthed her baby into something much different.