Sundance 2018: Shirkers Review

Singapore, 1992. A young girl names Sandi Tan, along with her friends and collaborators, sets off to film a lo-fi road movie called “Shirkers”. With the help of a teacher named George Codona, they spend months shooting a colourful, surreal tale that puts a twist on the street life of Singapore just before the city-state was about to undergo one of the most remarkable social and economic transitions the world has known.

And then, just before it was about to be completed, the film disappeared.

Decades later, and after the recovery of the dozens of cans of film that had been carefully stored, Tan takes a journey backwards, rewinding the years to look back at both the passions and follies of her youth. It’s the tale of three young women – Tan, her best friend/fellow-zine author Jasmine Ng and the diligent and intelligent Sophia Siddique-Harvey – and how as a trio they worked under the guidance of Codona to make their dreams of cinematic glory come true.

Just how things got messed up is of course part of the excitement of the film. The film operates on many levels – as timecapsule to Singapore’s recent past, as a kind of mystery investigation, and as something bordering on a therapeutic confession. All of these disparate elements could easily collapse into mediocrity, but thanks to the honest and at times shocking testimony of the participants, along with Tan’s refreshingly candid and self-critical look back at what was accomplished, we’re treated to nothing short of a magical work.

For at its heart this film is a celebration of the creative process itself, and it’s a glorious one at that. The story of these friends is one of determination and hubris, yet equally it’s a testimony to the fearlessness of youth, where seemingly anything is possible if one has the chutzpah to just give it a go. It’s this rush of creativity marred by the obstacles that would inevitably kibosh the work that gives the documentary its dramatic edge, finding by looking back at the appreciably ambivalent nature of just what took place those many years ago.

It’s through the contemporary interviews that we see just how bright the spirits of these three women are, each in their own way loving of what took place and fully recognizing just how much of a mess was made. The familiarity among the three is the work’s greatest strength, with the interviews providing the farthest thing from some retroactive love-fest, instead recognizing with the clarity of adulthood that they can share a deep friendship but still recognize that indeed sometimes those closest to you can also be assholes.

Yet the spark that most brightly illuminates the film lies in the very distance from when the project was initially executed. If released at the time the feature Shirkers would likely have been a mere blip in Singapore’s film history. Because of the strange road it took to be rediscovered, along with the wrappings of Tam’s stunning non-fiction approach, the true spirit of this collaboration is allowed to shine in ways far more luminous than would ever have been the case back when production began. It feels a bit like fate, as if Tan and her friend’s work needed to buried only to be unearthed when the time was right, when a dash of nostalgia and the self-critical aptitude gained through adulthood can properly situate this strange work.

Not since American Movie has there been a work that so wonderfully articulates and satirizes the beauty and foolishness of independent filmmaking. With her acerbic narration Tan’s film does that film one better, turning the lens unflinchingly on herself and her collaborators to craft something that’s equal parts confessional and celebratory. Shirkers  speaks to any true lover of cinema, calling out the vagaries of youth while simultaneously calling attention to what truly drives the artistic pursuit. In every way this is a work that feels meant to be, and by the same measure it deserves to find as wide an audience as possible.


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