Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Movie Review: Shirkers

Shirkers **** / *****
Directed by: Sandi Tan.
Written by: Sandi Tan.
The history of film is more than just the films that did get made – it’s also the history of films that never got made, or will forever remain unfinished. We’ll never know what Orson Welles’ complete Magnificent Ambersons would be, nor Stanley Kubrick’s Napoleon – and there are many silent films that are lost forever, perhaps robbing future generations of some geniuses we never got to know. The new Netflix documentary Shirkers (which debuts a week before the streaming service is going to release Welles’ The Other Side of the Wind, a long uncompleted film, that became legendary) tells the story of one such film whose place in Singapore film history will never be completely realized, because the film was stolen for the young women who worked so hard to make it – and though they now have the footage back, they don’t have the sound, so no real resurrection can ever truly be completed. It is, in many ways, a sad story – and one that makes you angry. But in its ways, Sandi Tan’s documentary about her experience all those years ago is her way of taking back the narrative – which is the happiest ending this story can possibly have now.
The documentary was directed by Sandi Tan, looking back at a period at her life in the early 1990s. She was a movie mad teenager in Singapore – which wasn’t the most receptive place for movies at that time, which had no real indie movie scene to speak of, and made it very hard to get all the movies she wanted to see that she read about in Film Comment. She was close with two other similarly movie mad girls – Jasmine Ng and Sophie Siddique – and together they wrote for magazines, interacted with film critics, and did everything possible to express their love. Their “mentor” was Georges Cardona, a white man, from America who was decades older than them, and of course knew all about movies. Eventually, he will convince Sandi to write and star in an indie movie – which he will direct – and of course, she enlists Jasmine and Sophie. They will shoot for months; he will convince them to put in their own money to finish the film. When the shooting is over, the three women go back to their lives – at that point, all outside of Singapore – and wait for Georges to tell them how the film is looking. All they received were a few cryptic recordings, and then nothing. Georges was gone – and with him, Shirkers, the movie they made is gone too. Years later, Georges ex-wife will contact Sandi again with the news that Georges has died – but there are can and cans of films all labelled Shirkers. He carted those cans of films around the world with him – but somewhere along the way got rid of the sound recordings. As Sandi says, Shirkers was returned to her a mute.
As a personal documentary, Shirkers is quite remarkable. In it, Tan looks back at the person she once was – and doesn’t always like what she finds. She is embarrassed that she allowed herself to be taken in by Cardona, his stories, his faux-genius. The signs he was a con artist were there – from telling everyone he was the inspiration for James Spader’s character in sex, lies and videotape, to his inexperience in directing – where at times, there wasn’t even film in the camera. While she has remained friends with Jasmine and Sophie – it’s clear that when the subject of Shirkers comes up, they still argue about it – they saw in Cardona what Sandi could not, or did not want to. Jasmine goes as far as to say that Sandi was an asshole when they were working.
And yet, she is proud of the film they almost made. Watching the footage again, the Singapore film critics she talks to laments that Shirkers was never finished – that this film could have been the missing link for the national cinema to push itself in a new, more daring direction. When Sandi, who went onto become a film critic before becoming a novelist, says she felt shivers of Shirkers while watching Wes Anderson’s Rushmore or Terry Zwigoff’s Ghost World, the claim isn’t as outlandish at it first appears based on the footage we see.
And the footage is a treasure trove of interesting things. Of course, now its faded a little, and is always silent – and this contrasts against the modern footage shot for this documentary, giving that footage an eerie feel to it – the lost remnants of a bygone era.
Tan travels around America, following the steps Cardona took after he left Singapore with their film – talks to others, who had similar experiences with him, and feel similarly taken advantage of, with little to show for it. People who put their careers on hold to help Cardona, who never seems to actually have finished anything. He had a habit of taken in people, and becoming their mentor – but seem to resent it if they showed too much promise, and may achieve what he never did.
Who really knows what Shirkers would have been had Cardona not absconded with the footage, and had it been able to be finished. Maybe it would be little more than a footnote – a film that played a few festivals and then disappeared. Or maybe, it would have been something much more important. We can never really know, because of course, that isn’t what happened. But in making this Shirkers, this documentary, Tan seems to want to claim her place in cinema history – while being unsure what that is. This documentary is in many ways so tiny and personal – and yet it others it feels big and important. One of the things we have talked about in the #MeToo era is never knowing the work that could have been done by the women either driven out of the industry altogether, or who were blacklisted. There is an alternate history where their careers were not derailed, and who knows what it would look like. Shirkers isn’t a #MeToo story, but it brings up the same haunting What If?

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