Shirkers has been with Sandi Tan for over twenty years. Well, let’s take a step back—that’s not entirely true. For many years it was held captive from its creator. This is the story about an idealistic, punk filmmaker from Singapore reclaiming their art from the man who stole their dreams.
Shirkers is a fun sell, a documentary where the premise delivers the goods. You’re going to get to see Sandi’s long-missing project intercut with the story about what happened. What happened is her mentor Georges took away with the film she wrote when it was nearing completion, leaving everyone involved with nothing to show for their years of work. Throughout the years, Sandi would find echoes of her project in fragments of pop culture, like Ghost World, and would believe her ideas were still alive, out there somewhere seeping into other media.
The essence of the film would be that Sandi would create a kind of reverse slasher flick where a woman goes about and brings men home before killing them off with her weapon of choice—finger guns. The leftover footage is cute and bright, clearly from the mind of an adolescent, but it charms and reflects a filmic background. She thought it would be nice to have a giant dog, so an oversized wolf of a dog was put in. The choices are filled with a remarkable glee and inner fascination with what was interesting to shoot.
We must understand where Sandi’s coming from. In Singapore, there wasn’t anything so much like another slasher film being made. These influences came from the author’s great background of our Western cult classics, brought into the imagery of her perspective.
There are still Sandi’s fingerprints all over not only the original work but this documentary. Any time an animal roams on set, it’s sure to be included. A cat scares one interviewee mid-sentence, and you can feel the sureness that it would be included here. Sandi’s eclectic mind never left her aims of delivering fun, provocative cinema. She has just matured into a stylish documentarian of her unique perspective. We genuinely can’t help but fall a bit in love with Shirkers, when we see how devoted she is to her punk ideals.
It’s somewhat of a sad, weird story too. The film was pretty much complete, and Georges dropped off the map completely. Some of the film is spent following his tracks but to varying degrees of success. We find a trail of other people he’s screwed over but not before having them buy into his visions. He’d propose seemingly new concepts—like a setpiece for Shirkers which Sandi would later find out is copied right out of Paris, Texas’s (1984) sidewalk scene. He’d tell everyone who’d listen that he’s the inspiration for James Spader’s character in Sex, Lies and Videotape (1989). It was one of his close associates who was actually involved on the set. He’d take jealousy and entitlement and divert it onto the creations of others, believing something so wonderful and inventive should be his own. Like his make-believe Soderberghian counterpart, Georges wasn’t interested in women for sex, but made advances on these young women anyway. My greatest frustration with Shirkers is we never find any conclusions about the man or especially what ever motivated any of this.
The revelation of Shirkers is that found footage is now an authentic genre. This Netflix produced documentary is an absolute treat for festivals, fitting in naturally with the North Bend Festival’s status quo of rebellious outsider creations. There is little as rebellious as this fantastic woman reclaiming her art from this man who stole her dreams and repackaging the story for our entertainment. Sandi Tan should be acclaimed as a folk punk hero.