Sandi Tan’s debut was stolen by her film teacher – now she’s recovered the footage, it’s being released on Netflix in the poignant documentary Shirkers
“Only kids could’ve pulled this off – thank God for teenagers and teenage mania!” exclaims Sandi Tan. In 1992, as an ambitious teenager herself, Tan came up with the idea of making a road trip movie across Singapore – a country where it takes about 40 minutes to drive from one side to the other. Inspired by American indie films by Jim Jarmusch and David Lynch and the French New Wave, she handed the first draft of her screenplay to her film teacher Georges Cardona, who approved. Along with her friends Jasmine Kin Kia Ng and Sophie Siddique Harvey, they put together a crew, gathered equipment, stole extras out of nursing homes, sent absurd letters to financiers, and ran their bank accounts dry to finish the film. Once it had wrapped, the 70 cans of 16mm film disappeared – along with Georges.
Twenty-five years later, Tan has pieced the surreal fragments of this puzzling mystery back together in a glorious cut-and-paste style, in the new movie Shirkers. Reunited with her lost footage, she has spliced it together with the story of how it was stolen and resurfaced. It’s a compelling, stranger than fiction story of broken friendships, stolen dreams, and youthful folly.
“In the early 90s in Singapore when I was teenager, nobody was making films,” Tan explains to Dazed. “When nobody’s doing anything in a place like this, that’s so boring, you have to make your own fun. If you don’t, you get sucked into a whirlpool of quotidian petty concerns of money and status. I didn’t want to be one of those people.”
Tan and her friend Kin Kia Ng made their own fun by setting up their own punk zine in 1989 called The Exploding Cat – they wanted to break away from male-dominated media and report on the culture that interested them. It reached global success thanks to Factsheet Five, a zine directory based in New York. “It was about finding my tribe, and finding things for me and my friends to do, to be united in some form that wasn’t school. It became this cult thing, and suddenly we had this new network. My version of the internet. I knew then that the world was large and I had allies.”
After their success (and finishing school), the girls decided to try their hands at filmmaking. “Georges was giving the first ever 16mm film class in Singapore, so we just went for it. We didn’t have the same hang-ups about grown-ups. There were so many boundaries that did not exist for us, and so Georges became my best friend. We would sit for hours in his car, talking at night, and it looked really bad to the rest of the world.”
The girls fell in love with film, sneaking bootleg copies of American movies into Singapore to feed their obsession. “I had a cousin in Florida, I would give her a list of movies like Blue Velvet or Raising Arizona. She would go to Blockbuster obediently and dub me tapes. I also had my cousin tape a lot of things like SNL, and music videos of my favourite bands, all those 4AD bands like The Wolfgang Press.” After her brief education in filmmaking, Tan was confident she could put together a movie – though Kin Kia Ng had hesitations about financing, and wanted to wait a year.
The resulting film is a surreal time capsule about a young girl (played by Tan) who goes on an existential journey. She steals children away from mothers, makes friends with older men, and hangs out with a giant dog named Mega. “We shot in 100 locations. We were kids with no access to trucks and transport, we took public transport and hijacked buses. It was incredibly ambitious – it was like Bugsy Malone or like something out of Rushmore, with all these kids doing this crazy stuff.”
The locations have changed dramatically over the years, with huge developments swallowing up the lush green landscapes. “There was a shot of the topiary garden in the original Shirkers, but now it’s been completely paved over,” says Tan. “The place I loved was disappearing before my eyes. I had to find a way of preserving it, and making a film was a good way.”
When the film was first found, over 20 years after it was stolen, it took Tan a while to get around to watching it. The first time she did was at a film lab with the colourists who worked on restorations of German director Douglas Sirk’s 1950s films. To make the film in its current documentary form, she hired director of photography Iris Ng to shoot the retrospective interviews, and was encouraged to also turn the camera on herself. It appears painful for the women to trawl through these memories, trying to figure out why Georges hid away their film for so long.
No one really knows why he did what he did, but Tan has an idea. “His life was his novel,” she says. “One of the ways he could make himself memorable and real was to create absences in young people’s lives who were aspiring to create something. He would leave these huge holes in their lives, so they would remember him forever.”
Shirkers will be available on Netflix on Friday October 26