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.