Synopsis: In 1992, teenager Sandi Tan shoots Singapore’s first road movie with her enigmatic American mentor, Georges Cardona, who then absconded with all the footage. The 16 mm film is recovered 20 years later, sending Tan who is a novelist living in Los Angeles, on a personal odyssey, in search of George’s footprints.
Release on Netflix in 2018, Shirkers attracted critical acclaim for its story and its main protagonist. Throughout this documentary, we follow Sandi Tan, a Singaporean turned American novelist in Los Angeles as she comes to terms with her past. In 1992, Sandi and her friends, Sophia Siddique and Jasmine Ng as well as her film mentor, Georges Cardona decided to make Shirkers. According to Sandi, Shirkers would have been the first indie film to be made in Singapore. Unfortunately, when the trio went to different places to pursue further education, their psychologically impaired mentor stole all their footage and didn’t give their film back. Traumatized by the events, the trio went their separate ways with Sandi being a film critic for the Strait Times. Enter 2011. The ex-wife of Georges Cardona calls Sandi and informs that she has all the footage except the audio clips. Lacking in audio, Sandi decides to digitize the footage and uses it to create Shirkers where she details the journey of making and losing the film as well as revisiting her friends.
Shirkers is a special documentary as it provides us a Singaporean view of the 1990s from the perspective of the youth lived during the time and their obsession with cult films. It also shows the effects of fleeting childhood as the trio went on to jobs that pale in comparison with their dream jobs. Unfortunately, there were instances where international audiences were unhappy with the documentary as they felt it was a narcissistic pretentious documentary that sensationalized the events told in the documentary. When you think about it, the documentary mostly tries to paint Sandi in a good light but there is an instance where it is cringe-inducing where Jasmine mentions how exhausting it was to work with Sandi and not the process of filmmaking. International audiences also felt that the documentary failed in being compelling as not much was discussed about the unresolved mysterious disappearance of their American mentor who had psychological issues and a dark past entwined with David Duke, one of America’s most notorious racists.
To conclude, Shirkers would be something good to watch if you’re feeling lazy. Like many Singaporean films before it, Shirkers is one of those rare documentaries that come in a fortnight and will fade into history without a major impact on the world. It could have been something more if it was not bogged down by narcissism and its failure in resolving the mystery behind their American mentor. It does beg the question. Will Singapore allow our captivating filmmakers to leave us, continuing this cycle of mediocrity prevalent in modern Singaporean filmmaking or will Singapore step up their filmmaking game?
Review By Ali Hamzah Bin Mohamad Imran.