the true story of the teenage girl who shot singapore's first feminist road movie
A new documentary unravels the story of ‘Shirkers’ – a lost 90s feminist movie made by Sandi Tan.
Images courtesy Netflix
Sandi Tan was only 18 when she made her first film, Shirkers. Shot in 1992, it was Singapore’s first indie road movie and it was the definition of guerrilla moviemaking. Picture a young film crew stealing old people from an old folks home to shoot a scene; sneaking kids out of school and then sneaking them back again; tiptoeing, illegally, onto a motorway in the early hours to film at the magic hour. They had zero permits. Their clapper boy was only 13. To people in the streets, they were just a crew of crazy kids. “Nobody knew what we were doing,” Sandi says, “nobody had made a film like this.”
As a teenage filmmaker, Sandi Tan was exploding with ideas, a creative rule-breaker in straight-laced Singapore. She poured her heart and soul into Shirkers, her feminist road movie about a teenager (played by Sandi) and her surreal adventures around the streets of Singapore. But here’s the thing: a deep mystery surrounds Shirkers. Before the film was released – before anyone had even seen the footage – it was stolen by an older man, an American man who mentored Sandi, a man who helped shoot and direct the movie, a mysterious man named Georges.
Now, 26 years later, Sandi has released a Sundance-winning documentary detailing the whole saga. Released on Netflix this week, and also titled Shirkers, it tells the intriguing story behind her ‘lost movie’. Who was this enigmatic Georges character? Why did he steal her movie? And what happened to the 70 reels of film they shot together? The doc unspools like a cinematic treasure hunt that aims to crack the mystery, while telling the inspiring story of a teen with burning ambition and bulldog tenacity, whose story is by turns heartbreaking and uplifting.
When I meet Sandi in London, I ask about the original Shirkers, made from her own script. “We shot that first draft. That’s how crazy it was,” she laughs, remembering the low-budget production. “I look back and think, Wow, it’s pretty darn ambitious. There’s something very unfiltered and very fresh and youthful about it.”
Shirkers, which puts influences like David Lynch and Werner Herzog through Sandi’s own unique cinematic blender, was totally new and different for Singapore in the early 90s. Did she and her friends know they were making something groundbreaking? “We didn’t think we were. We just thought, fuck it, there’s been so much rubbish made in Singapore, let’s do something decent, let’s just do something.”
In Signapore, she explains, “if you don’t make your own fun and your own film and your own art, you’re basically sucked into this overwhelming sense of petty, mediocre, conventional things. It’s just so depressing.”
The doc unravels the tantalising mystery of what happened after Georges did a runner with the film. At that moment, when Sandi realised her labour of love had been taken from her, what did she feel? In a word, “Disbelief.” It slowly dawned on her that it was gone, that he was gone. She tried to track him down but it was hard back then, she says, because they had no grownups supporting them. After all, who would take seriously a bunch of kids playing dress-up? “To admit to adults that Georges, an adult, had taken this stuff was to admit that you were stupid and you were conned.”
So why did Georges take off with the film? At the time, Sandi thought he would try to put the film together by himself. He felt threatened by her and the crew, the idea of them taking credit, because they had pulled this production together. “He never thought we would actually make this film.” Was she ever worried he would destroy it? “It was too huge of an endeavour, even if Georges was perverse, it was so much work, and it was also his work.”
Sandi was confident the film still existed. Where or how she could get to it, she didn’t know. It wasn’t until 20 years later that the first clue landed in her inbox. An email from Georges’s widow. “She was like, ‘Are you interested in having these things back?’ I was like… Oh my god!”
The 70 cans of film were perfectly preserved and unseen by the world for over two decades. You might think Sandi would have digitised the reels that very day. In fact they sat in her living room for another three years before being opened. “I just knew they would suck me into this rabbit hole from which I might never emerge.” But still, three years! “Also, emotionally it was like opening up this Pandora’s box,” she explains, “and I wasn’t sure if I was ready to deal with it.”
23 years after she made it, Sandi finally laid eyes on Shirkers. “It was everything I remembered,” she says, “I was vindicated because everything I thought we shot, we shot. And I was vindicated that it was true, it did look like Ghost World. I wasn’t making that up. When I saw Ghost World I was like… [ gasps] oh my god, I had chills.”
Imagine suddenly having this window into your teenage years, seeing yourself in a time capsule, remembering that intense time, all those adolescent dreams, all that uncertainty. Over the nine months she spent editing the film, Sandi was taken back to her youth in Singapore. “With the film, I was kind of reconstructing my teenage manic self in the beginning,” she says, “and building up my confidence as a storyteller again, while solving the greatest mystery of my life.”
What does Sandi see now, when she sees her teenage self appear in the warm glow of 16mm film? “I see the great gulf between the inside and the outside. On the outside she seems like this expressionless blob, but inside was this manic mess of ambition and energy. I was reminded of how filled with ideas and energy I was, creating this universe in my head all the time. But when you see me in pictures from back then I was this placid, self-conscious person. I was reminded: that’s why one must never judge anyone by the way they are on the outside.”
Shirkers is out on Netflix 26 October.