Netflix documentary ’Shirkers’ is a testament to DIY culture and the importance of being earnest

Filmmaker Sandi Tan begins Shirkers with a narration: “When I was 18, a long time ago now, I had the idea that you found freedom by building worlds inside your head,” she states, sounding pensive, almost as though she were reading from a personal journal entry. “When I was 18,” she continues, “I had so many ideas, I hardly slept at all.”

Shirkers, the documentary, was never supposed to exist. Instead, there should’ve been Shirkers, one of Singapore’s first full-length independent feature films. Based off a script written by Tan, it was going to be a road movie about a 16-year-old killer, who goes only by S, following her as she takes her little band of misfits on an afterlife journey. The year was 1992; Winona Ryder was everyone’s weird, cool big sister and Hollywood had just clued in that dark humor, and moody imagery were the best way to reach the kids. Shirkers was ahead of its time.

The movie was filmed that summer. Tan also starred as S, her best friend Jasmine Ng was the editor, and their friend Sophie Siddique-Harvey was the producer. The director was Georges Cardona, an older man of indeterminate age and origin who taught a filmmaking class they had been taking. Not long after they wrapped, however, he disappeared and took everything — all that waiting, all that work, all that trust for nothing. 20 years later, the reels resurfaced, leading Tan to reexamine old wounds and crushed dreams to figure out what happened.

Connect the dots: Shirkers became a time capsule, capturing the changing culture and landscapes of a Singapore that’s no longer there.

But once upon a time, she and her friends were going to be pioneers, and they had only been 18 or 19 years old.

Hearing Tan’s opening narration was pure resonance for me. It reminded me, instantly, of what it was like to be that age, brimming with things you wanted to do and make and try if you just had the time. When the life you’d been dealt felt too small, too unremarkable, especially with an entire world of stuff out there. Tan and Ng were big into “unusual movies and popular music,” like David Lynch and the Velvet Underground, and they started a zine. It was borne out of frustration, filled with esoteric little collages, produced with the help of the local library’s photocopy machine — and it somehow found readers from all over the world.

When I was 18, one of the ideas I managed to turn into a project was also a zine, which I started with my friends. It took some time, but it wasn’t complicated: We started talking about it, we planned it, we did it. Because we could. In the documentary, Ng describes Shirkers as something “19-year-olds could’ve gone and said, ‘Let’s go do it. Why not?’” And that’s exactly what happened with Elision.  


Ng describes Shirkers as something “19-year-olds could’ve gone and said, ‘Let’s go do it. Why not?’”

 

When it all came down to it, Tan and her crew of friends-turned-filmmakers were amateurs, and they were learning on the job. They shot scenes guerrilla-style, “stole” extras from an old folks’ home, and basically got away with the sneakiest antics.

I was editing and writing for Elision, trying to lead a staff of 13- to 19-year-olds who were also still figuring out their literary voices and artistic styles. None of us had any practical knowledge. Everything we did was a shot in the dark, even the hopeful emails we would send to publicists, the bands we listened to, and our favorite people. For some reason, some of them actually said yes. I found myself exchanging (electronic) words with my idols for features in our “Conversation” section — Dan Howell, Swim Deep, Nöel Wells, and Julian Casablancas.

Elision was meant to fill a gap, to be an example of what we wanted to see and read. I recall how fearless we were in our pursuit, faithful and idealistic. There was a freedom and innocence, an earnestness to it that you learn to let go when you start having to do things the “right” way, which became the case for me when I began working in publishing. You knew nothing, so you believed in everything — most of all what you were doing, and what you loved.

Do it your way: Shirkers was orignally supposed to be one of Singapore’s first full-length independent feature films.

It was the kind of phase in your life you could never replicate. To start small, to create something from scratch, and to have it mean the world to you and actually get somewhere, get people to take notice.

And for Tan, she’s had to pretend that this period in her life never happened. Later on, when she works to unravel the mystery behind Cardona’s betrayal, she has to concede to the narrative limitations of a documentary and admit that sometimes, there can never be any closure, nor any definite answers to “Why?” and “What if?” Experiences like hers are always stranger than fiction, but never as neat.

 

In the end, Tan concludes that Shirkers has become a time capsule, capturing the changing culture and landscapes of a Singapore that’s no longer there

 

I lost Elision, too, eventually. Not in as profound a way as Tan had lost Shirkers, of course, but I lost it nonetheless. It’s just another part of my life — temporary, ephemeral — that’s run its course. We drifted from it, little by little, pulled along by responsibilities and suddenly busy schedules.

But it calls out to me sometimes, sends signals, the way Tan’s lost film used to haunt her. I’m trying my hardest to find my way back to it.

In the end, Tan concludes that Shirkers has become a time capsule, capturing the changing culture and landscapes of a Singapore that’s no longer there: locations that have closed down, the people as they used to be, the fashion choices.

Looking back through Elision’s pages, I’m reminded of late-night Viber conversations, looking over submissions and marveling over how talented these people were, and working with some of my very best friends through it, even if they lived on the other side of the world. I think of growing up with them, sharing their passions, and building a little creative community that could. I have so much affection for them.

“I know that I’ll never get all of my friends in the same place at the same time ever again,” Tan says in her film, “but here they all are, with me.”

The things we create when we were too young to know any better become snapshots of these points in our lives, and Shirkers, more than anything, taught me to appreciate that. Revisiting them, you’re overcome with the sensation of reading an old diary and meeting an old version of yourself, unfiltered and embarrassing and also still you.

 

Tan says in her film, “but here they all are, with me.”

 

The recovered reels from Shirkers are the closest thing Tan gets to closure, albeit without sound. Mute, set to a beautifully eerie soundtrack, moments appear without context, like non-sequiturs. Like a memory, really — vivid, but not perfect; searing flashes of odd details and individuals shining through. And the story that ended up being told is every bit as gripping as the one they had set out to tell in the first place.

 

Shirkers is steaming on netflix.com.